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Wednesday, 28 March 2007
Page: 4


Senator ABETZ (Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation) (9:51 AM) —I move:

That these bills be now read a second time.

I table the explanatory memoranda relating to the bills and seek leave to have the second reading speeches incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speeches read as follows—

GENE TECHNOLOGY AMENDMENT BILL 2007

The Bill I am introducing today strengthens the Australian Government’s component of the nationally consistent gene technology regulatory scheme. This scheme protects the health and safety of people and the environment from any risks that may be posed by genetically modified organisms.

The Bill will make amendments to the Gene Technology Act 2000 (the Act) to ensure that regulatory burden is commensurate with risk, introduce provisions to deal with unexpected situations, and ensure the smooth operation of the scheme.  These changes proposed will not make any significant changes to the strong scientific assessment framework of the Act which has been working well over the past six years. 

This Bill is the response to the Statutory Review of the Gene Technology Act 2000 and the Gene Technology Agreement 2001, conducted in 2005-06.  I would like to thank the review panel, chaired by Ms Susan Timbs, and the Secretariat for such a comprehensive review. 

The review panel concluded that the gene technology regulatory system was working well and recommended a number of changes intended to improve the operation of the regulatory scheme.  The recommended changes are implemented by the Bill.

To ensure that regulatory burden is commensurate to risk, provisions in the Bill will differentiate between limited and controlled release of genetically modified organisms and commercial releases.  This split will allow different timeframes and consultation requirements for the assessment of applications for these types of dealings to be set.

This change will allow researchers to get on with the job of testing in the field genetically modified organisms that could result in agricultural and environmental benefits, while ensuring that the health and safety of people and the environment is properly protected.

Gene technology holds great potential for Australia and there may be circumstances where a genetically modified organism is uniquely capable of dealing with a health or environmental emergency.  This Bill introduces emergency provisions that will more ably allow a genetically modified organism to be used in an emergency.  However, we consider it appropriate that even in an emergency there be strong safeguards in place to ensure that the genetically modified organism are used appropriately.

Another issue that this Bill addresses is that where a person finds themselves dealing inadvertently with an unlicensed genetically modified organism the Gene Technology Regulator may issue a licence to allow that person to appropriately dispose of the organism.

The gene technology framework provides for extensive consultation with experts on ethics, scientists,  State and Territory governments, other regulatory agencies and the wider community.  This consultation would be enhanced as a result of the establishment of the Gene Technology Ethics and Community Consultation Committee, that would be established by this Bill. 

The Bill also proposes a number of procedural and technical changes that would improve the ongoing operation of the scheme.

The Act is part of a wider intergovernmental scheme in which the States and Territories have agreed to introduce corresponding legislation for the regulation of genetically modified organisms.  The quality of this Bill is shown by the strong support it has received from the States and Territories and the approval of the Bill by the Gene Technology Ministerial Council.  This is a great example of Australian governments working collectively to ensure that Australia has a world-class regulatory system that protects the heath and safety of people and the environment as well as promoting research in this growing industry.

This Bill represents amendments preferred by States and Territories and any amendments to the proposed Bill may not be supported by the States and Territories.


FOOD STANDARDS AUSTRALIA NEW ZEALAND AMENDMENT BILL 2007

I am very pleased today to be introducing the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Amendment Bill 2007 which implements the Government’s commitment to substantially improve food regulatory processes in Australia and New Zealand.

The proposed amendments to the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991 (the Act) have emanated from a number of different projects involving extensive consultations with all Australian State and Territory Governments, the New Zealand Government as well as the food industry, consumer and public health groups and I am delighted with the broad support that has been expressed for the proposed amendments.

In the past ten years, the food regulatory environment in Australia has undergone a number of significant changes.  In order to reflect this changing environment, the legislation which governs food regulation has been amended on a number of occasions. 

The last amendments in 2001 were part of a reformed packaged that restructured the food regulation system.  It conferred policy responsibility for the food policy framework to a Ministerial Council comprising Ministers representing all relevant portfolios.  And it established a new independent statutory authority - Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (the Authority) to develop and approve science-based food standards.  The package also retained the requirement that the Ministerial Council must be satisfied with any approved standard.   

Since the commencement of the new system in 2002, ongoing feedback from consumers, government and industry has highlighted a number of areas where the Authority’s operations could be improved.  In particular, a recent review of the food standard development and approval processes highlighted areas in which processes could be streamlined and harmonised, red-tape could be reduced and innovation in the food industry could be further encouraged.

The main weaknesses of the existing system were found to be the timeframe for decision making, and the “one size fits all” approach fixed in the legislation for developing or amending a food standard. 

The underlying issue is that virtually all applications and proposals are being processed in the same way, regardless of whether these are for a major or minor amendment to a standard, or for a new standard altogether.  Even applications for minor technical amendments are subject to the full gamut of two rounds of public consultation, three sets of reports and the opportunity for Ministerial Council reviews.

It was found that the average time taken to complete a full assessment of an application was 16.8 months.  This has lead to a considerable backlog of applications.  Anyone who lodged an application could expect to wait 15 to 18 months before the assessment of that application could commence. 

To address this problem, the Bill before us amends the Act to enable the Authority to assess different applications and proposals according to their nature and scope.  Three different streams will replace the current “one size fits all” model, resulting in a targeted assessment process that will improve efficiency and reduce average assessment times.  Improvements have also been included to better engage stakeholders in the standards development process.

Another issue that was identified by the review was the need to improve the capacity to align the processes between the policy development undertaken by the Ministerial Council and the standard development process of the Authority. 

The Bill addresses this issue by further strengthening the complementary roles of the Authority and the Ministerial Council.  The Bill enables the Authority to suspend consideration of an application to await policy advice from the Ministerial Council when policy on the same issue as the application is under development.

Currently, there is no simple way for the Authority to defer dealing with an application to amend a standard, even if it knows that the Ministerial Council is concurrently developing policy guidelines that will affect this standard. 

This approach has been endorsed by the Ministerial Council.  It strikes the necessary balance between aligning the functions of the Ministerial Council and the Authority, and processing applications without undue delay.

The second change in relation to the Ministerial Council is to streamline the process for finalising standards.  Subject to necessary changes to the Food Treaty between Australia and New Zealand, the Bill amends the review procedure that is available to the Ministerial Council after the Authority has approval a standard.  The removal of the option for a second review will significantly streamline the process to finalise standards while still ensuring appropriate oversight of standards by the Ministerial Council.  

As part of the review a great deal of feedback was received on better management of issues related to food innovation.

An area identified by industry as having the biggest potential for innovation of food was that of health claims. 

As a result of extensive consultation with all interested parties, the Bill addresses the main concerns of industry by including a new process for the scientific pre-market assessment and approval of high level health claims.  The Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Standard is currently under development by the Authority.  Once the Standard is approved, individuals and companies will be required to make applications to the Authority for pre-market approval of high level health claims which will then be assessed against the Standard and, if approved, added to the list of approved claims.

The new process described in the Bill ensures that, if and when the new Nutrition, Health and Related Claims Standard takes effect, all high level health claims will be fully assessed by the Authority with the advice of an expert committee and in consultation with States, Territories and New Zealand. 

Once the Authority approves the inclusion of the claim in the Standard the amended Standard will be considered by the Ministerial Council in the usual way.  This process ensures proper assessment of the claim against the Standard but also encourages innovation in this area by enabling claims to remain confidential.

To remove unnecessary red-tape and duplication and to improve clarity the Bill also makes several minor and consequential amendments.  An example is an amendment to the Agricultural and Veterinary Chemicals Code Act 1994.  The amendment enables the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority to refer applications relating to Maximum Residue Limits to the Authority, and for these to be dealt with in a streamlined manner.  This will align the processes of the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority and of Authority for the cooperative setting of Maximum Residue Limits and remove unnecessary red-tape and duplication.

The State, Territory and New Zealand Governments have been closely involved in the development of this legislation.  All are jointly committed to a food regulation system that runs as smoothly and efficiently as possible, while still maintaining the existing open and publicly accountable arrangements that ensure the protection of public health and safety.  The amendments proposed by this Bill reflect this commitment.

Ordered that further consideration of the second reading of these bills be adjourned to the first day of the next period of sittings in accordance with standing order 111.

Ordered that the bills be listed on the Notice Paper as separate orders of the day.