Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Community Affairs Legislation Committee
18/04/2011
Food Standards Amendment (Truth in Labelling—Genetically Modified Material) Bill 2010

ACTING CHAIR —Welcome. Because you have not received information on parliamentary privilege I need to advise you that before giving evidence a witness shall be offered the opportunity to make application before and during the hearing of the witness’s evidence for any or all of the witnesses’ evidence to be held in private session and shall be invited to give reasons for such an application. We call that in-camera evidence—in other words, it is confidential. If the application is not granted the witness shall be notified of the reasons for that decision. If you do not want to do that then I will not continue reading the rest out.

Ms Parfitt —That is fine.

ACTING CHAIR —A chair of a committee shall take care to ensure that all questions put to witnesses are relevant to the committee’s inquiry and that information sought for those questions is necessary for the purpose of the inquiry. If you object to answering any question put on any ground, including the ground that the question is not relevant or the question may incriminate the witness, the witness shall be invited to state the ground upon which the objection to answering the question is taken. Unless the committee determines immediately the question shall not be pressed, the committee shall then consider in private session whether it shall insist on an answer, so just be aware of that if you decide you are not going to answer a question.

Where a committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person the committee shall give consideration to hearing that evidence in private session. Where a witness gives evidence reflecting adversely on a person and the committee is not satisfied that evidence is related to the committee’s inquiry, the committee shall give consideration to expunging the evidence from the transcript of evidence and forbid its publication.

If there is evidence that reflects adversely on a person or action of a kind referred to in the previous paragraph the committee shall provide reasonable opportunity for that person, in other words the person that the evidence reflects badly on or adversely on—and we have done this on many occasions in the past—we will provide that evidence to the person or organisation in question and ask them to respond either in a written submission or before the committee.

There are also matters that relate to contempt of Senate committees, and that is interfering with witnesses. A person shall not by fraud, intimidation, force or threat of any kind or by the offer or promise of an inducement or benefit of any kind or by any improper means influence another person in the aspect of any evidence given before the Senate or a committee.

There are also the issues around the fact that a person shall not inflict any penalty or injury upon or derive any benefit from another person on account of any evidence given to or before the Senate or a committee.

Those are the sorts of things that it would be good for you to have a quick look at afterwards to make sure you know your responsibilities as a witness as well.

Ms Parfitt —Absolutely.

ACTING CHAIR —We have Greenpeace’s submission, which is No. 13. I invite you to make an opening statement and then we will ask you some questions.

Ms Parfitt —Greenpeace supports the spirit of the truth in labelling bill which has been put forward and in particular the explanatory memorandum which details the concern that truth in labelling is vital and is supported by the community. We are concerned in relation to specific loopholes in the legislation which are detailed in the submission, as well as failure to enforce the laws that we have. That said, we have some concerns in relation to the bill, particularly for example in relation to the definition of genetically modified materials. We think that needs to be clarified in order to obtain the objective which is stated in the explanatory memorandum, that people are aware of when their food contains genetically modified material or products that are derived from genetic modification.

ACTING CHAIR —Senator Xenophon.

Senator XENOPHON —You said that you support the spirit of this bill. What does that mean?

Ms Parfitt —As I indicated, it is because of the growing community concerns around consumers having a right to know what they are eating. I refer to the 90 per cent of consumers who indicated back in 2009that they would like their food labelled if it contains GM derived ingredients, as well as our submission contains details of people who have supported our pledge for truth in labelling. We see that this bill goes to that objective, that people will, in fact, know if their food contains ingredients which are derived from GM processes. That is what we support.

Senator XENOPHON —Is Greenpeace relatively happy with the structure of the bill in terms of how it would prescribe this to occur?

Ms Parfitt —We are concerned about the reference to genetically modified material and the failure in that to address where genetically modified ingredients or products derived from genetic modification no longer contain detectable DNA. There are a number of circumstances in which that can take place, particularly in relation to additives, but also in some situations in relation to highly processed foods. We would say that we need to look at the process by which the food was produced and, if it is produced from crops using GM modification, it should be labelled.

Senator XENOPHON —I am not sure whether you heard the evidence given by Food Standards Australia New Zealand.

Ms Parfitt —I did not.

Senator XENOPHON —I think a fair way of summarising that evidence is that Food Standards Australia New Zealand sets the standards, but the question of enforcement is up to the states and territories, as well as—and I am sure Senator Boyce will correct me if I am wrong—it is a question of an interpretation of that standard is up to the states and territories. I think that is a fair summary.

Senator BOYCE —It is indeed.

Senator XENOPHON —Senator Boyce would not let me get away with not representing Food Standards Australia New Zealand fairly. Do you have an issue with that? Do you think there ought to be a consistent approach to interpretation and enforcement of the standards?

Ms Parfitt —That is a matter for the government. What we are advocating is, whether it happens at the state or federal level, that the loopholes in our legislation be tightened. That is that highly refined foods such as oils and so on must be labelled when they contain products derived from GM. Foods at takeaways, restaurants and so on should be labelled. Animal products where the animals have been fed GM feed should be labelled. There is also this glaring loophole around the accident; all those things need to be changed, in our view.

As far as the enforcement is concerned, we have also submitted as to holding the enforcement process. Whether that happens at the state or federal level, obviously there are certain arguments for consistency, but if it is being done at one level of government, it should be at the federal government. That said, what we are concerned about is that this stuff happens, and less so about at what level.

Senator XENOPHON —Since the S-26 infant formula case study that Greenpeace commissioned with the testing and the like, what feedback have you had from the regulators and the manufacturers after you exposed that?

Ms Parfitt —The regulator sent some of the same formula for testing. They sent six samples to two labs. One lab had all negative responses for GM and the other lab had all positive. As a result of that FSANZ concluded that the results were inconclusive and that the positives were false positives. Given that, in conjunction with the other tests that we had conducted and that had been conducted by Channel 7 at around the time of the exposure of the situation, this amounted to the seventh time that that infant formula had tested positive for GM in six months, so we felt that it was more appropriate that the negative results be regarded as inconsistent with the overall theme. In relation to the industry response, the company has said that the presence is unintentional. Again, we would refer to the consistency of the positive results to indicate that we think that is a little bit questionable.

ACTING CHAIR —I would like to follow up on that. I take your point about the number of times that it tested positive, but how do you relate that to it being an intentional or unintentional contamination?

Ms Parfitt —We would say that when a food manufacturer sources their soy or corn from the United States, where over 90 per cent of the soy and corn is genetically modified, that it is highly likely that the food will be contaminated with GM. In fact, even with segregation measures in place the industry will not provide beyond a level of 0.1 per cent certainty that foods are GM free, so even where the systems are segregated the industry will say that it could be up to 0.1 per cent contaminated with GM. We would say that when this level of GM presence is consistently being shown in a product then the manufacturer simply has to label it to let people know that they are sourcing their soy and corn from a place where they cannot guarantee that it is GM free.

CHAIR —I understand that. Senator Boyce.

Senator BOYCE —How long have you been involved in your genetic modification campaign?

Ms Parfitt —I have been working here for about a year.

Senator BOYCE —What are your professional qualifications?

Ms Parfitt —I am a lawyer by training. I worked as a lawyer for a couple of years in the early-2000s and since then I have worked for the trade union movement in Australia and at the international level.

Senator BOYCE —Have you done any work in the past in terms of prosecutions around standards?

Ms Parfitt —No.

Senator BOYCE —What level of presence do you want to test to?

Ms Parfitt —We want any level of GM presence to be tested.

Senator BOYCE —Any what?

Ms Parfitt —Any.

Senator BOYCE —Any presence?

Ms Parfitt —Any presence, regardless of the quantity.

Senator BOYCE —You would be aware that after certain levels—

Ms Parfitt —It is no longer detectable.

Senator BOYCE —Yes. It becomes somewhat disputed as to whether the level is real, et cetera. Can you put a figure on what you mean by any level?

Ms Parfitt —Any level of GM presence. For example, we would say that where food has been produced using genetic modification processes it needs to be labelled, regardless of whether the DNA can still be tested or not.

Senator BOYCE —How would that appear on a label?

Ms Parfitt —It would say that this food is derived from genetic modification.

Senator BOYCE —You will have to explain a little bit more how food is derived from genetic modification. There was an example given by FSANZ where unintentional contamination might be that a load of GM free corn is put into the same container that had previously had GM corn in it. Where would we stop in terms of exposure to any GM process? Would you want that product labelled at the end of the line?

Ms Parfitt —Yes, absolutely. Whenever genetically modified food appears on our shelves we think people should know.

Senator BOYCE —Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR —Senator Colbeck.

Senator COLBECK —The position of Greenpeace is that it is overall against GM—is that correct?

Ms Parfitt —Yes.

Senator COLBECK —So effectively taking it down to the smallest minutia basically gives you a campaigning tool against GM for any food?

Ms Parfitt —What is that, taking it to the smallest minutia?

Senator COLBECK —If someone genuinely has an unintentional contamination, which is less than the one per cent where the margin is currently set, that gives you the capacity to campaign against that producer, that food, on the basis of you being anti-GM. You can effectively go out, demand that it be labelled GM, regardless of the fact that it has only got an incidental presence, as assessed by our food safety regulators, and use it as a campaign tool.

Ms Parfitt —Under the current legislation there is not an option for that, because unintentional presence is permitted. However, the situation that we were campaigning against last year, we would say, is not one of unintentional presence, because it is consistently appearing in this company’s product.

Senator COLBECK —Senator Siewert has had that discussion with you and I have to say I will up front disagree with you. Just because there were a number of tests does not mean it was intentionally present. I do not see how you can make that assertion. If someone goes out specifically to buy a product and they have specifications that it be GM free, and then it unfortunately happens to have GM in it, I cannot see how under any circumstances you can regard that as being intentional.

Ms Parfitt —No. It can be intentional if a company is sourcing its soy and corn from the United States, where virtually all soy and corn is GM. Identity preservation systems only guarantee up to 0.1 per cent being GM free. They are almost certainly purchasing soy and corn which is up to 0.1 per cent GM.

Senator COLBECK —What you are basically saying is that there is no efficacy in any of the processes?

Ms Parfitt —No. What we are saying is, as the industry itself says, it is not possible to control for GM presence below 0.1 per cent.

Senator COLBECK —That goes to the comment that you made to Senator Boyce about product that might have been put in a container that previously had GM in it?

Ms Parfitt —Exactly.

Senator COLBECK —In your submission, you refer to GM feed having a negative impact on animals that eat it. What is that research? Can you point me to that?

Ms Parfitt —Yes. There are two separate issues. There is GM feed and there is GM being given to animals in animal feeding studies. Towards the end of the submission, there is a list of peer reviewed studies showing potential health risks associated with GM. It is in section 5 of the submission. That is a list of peer reviewed evidence showing negative impacts on animals that have eaten GM foods as part of feeding trials. You will have noted that there have been no peer reviewed studies regarding the impact on human health of eating GM. As far as feed is concerned, there has been some evidence recently to show that, where animals are fed GM feed, the presence of GM DNA can be found in the animal products later.

ACTING CHAIR —I wish to go back to the issues of the processes, whether it is actually present or it has been used in the process of generating an oil and things like that. Could you articulate that a little more in terms of why you want the ingredients and how they have been made and then to labelling? Can you explain that a little more?

Ms Parfitt —We have had GM products in our food system now for a bit over 10 years maybe. We really do not know the impacts of eating GM products. On the one hand, companies tell us that the products are so similar to the foods we eat already that they do not need to be labelled. On the other hand, they tell us that the products are so different that they need to be patented. There is a little bit of a disjuncture here where in some circumstances they are very different and in some circumstances they are not.

Senator BOYCE —So, why do they need to be patented?

ACTING CHAIR —I presume what you are saying is they are asking for patents for that particular process or product because it is different, because of it having been manufactured?

Ms Parfitt —Yes, the basis on which GM feeds are patented. The point I am getting to is that, although we may not be able to detect GM DNA in highly refined oil, for example, it is still a different product to an oil that is not GM. We think consumers have the right to know about that and to make a decision about whether or not they want to eat it, given the uncertainties around the impacts of eating GM foods.

ACTING CHAIR —Senator Boyce is concerned about the linking of the argument between it not being different so you do not have to label it but it being different so you do have to patent it?

Ms Parfitt —Yes.

ACTING CHAIR —Do you want to thrash that out a little bit more for us?

Senator BOYCE —I would be interested to hear how you think the two are linked.

Ms Parfitt —Because, on the one hand, the companies that produce these foods are telling us that they are sufficiently different that they should be subject to patent protection, but at the same time they are sufficiently similar that they should not attract a label. I think those things are inconsistent.

Senator BOYCE —Sufficiently different in what way?

Ms Parfitt —Sufficiently different, do you mean in terms of the patent?

Senator BOYCE —Yes, sufficiently different from a naturally occurring product in what way? The point is that it is about the process used to manufacture, not about the safety or the chemical composition of the product itself, is it not?

Ms Parfitt —The way the products attract a patent is by the insertion of a gene from another species. That is the genetic modification process that enables companies to have a patent over them.

Senator BOYCE —In some cases, I guess. I will stop there. We could go for hours.

ACTING CHAIR —In terms of the issue around the difference of a process or a highly refined oil, the point is that it is not just about it being different; it is about it possibly having health impacts?

Ms Parfitt —Yes, because it is different.

ACTING CHAIR —As to the information that you have given us that we talked about earlier about the health impacts of products that have been genetically modified, does that include looking at highly refined oils, for example, or any other highly refined product process?

Ms Parfitt —I have to be honest and say I am not familiar with the details of all of those, so I cannot answer that question for sure.

ACTING CHAIR —Would you like to take that on notice and get back to us?

Ms Parfitt —Yes, absolutely.

ACTING CHAIR —That would be appreciated. I want to follow up the example that we have been talking about in terms of the baby formula. When FSANZ fed back the results of their tests, have you taken that further? Where have you gone since then?

Ms Parfitt —Do you mean in terms of FSANZ’s response on false positives?

ACTING CHAIR —Yes.

Ms Parfitt —As far as I know, that is where it has been left. We received that information a month or two ago.

ACTING CHAIR —My next question relates to segregation. We have had this discussion about putting GM-free corn, for example, in a transport container that has already previously transported genetically modified corn. Does that mean that in America now they do not have these segregated processes for treating genetically modified produce as separate from GM-free produce?

Ms Parfitt —In order to have some identity preservation system, yes, they do, but not as comprehensive a system as we have in Australia. The same applies in Canada. That is part of the reason that the Canadian canola market contaminated so quickly with GM in just a few years, which is not the experience that we have had in Australia. That said, those systems are not foolproof. There have been quite a few examples here in Australia of contamination, even despite our segregation system. That happens in numerous ways, whether it is in the field or at silos or through the transport process.

ACTING CHAIR —Is that why you say you can assume that any soya or corn is contaminated that is sourced from America by manufacturers?

Ms Parfitt —It is a function of the amount of acreage that is planted to GM as opposed to non-GM, so being more than 90 per cent. And also the fact that the very systems that industry use to source soy and corn from the US assert themselves that they cannot provide 100 per cent GM-free certification.

ACTING CHAIR —We had quite a long conversation just before we heard from you with FSANZ and the health department around how they relate with the states in terms of testing. What is your experience in terms of your interaction with the various states? As I am sure you are aware, they are responsible for testing?

Ms Parfitt —Of course. We have met with a few people in a few states to talk about this. In WA we had an interesting conversation where the health minister told us that the best way for people to know whether their food has GM in it is by reading the Greenpeace True Food Guide. A lot of what we hear from state politicians about this is that they do not have the resources to do the kind of testing that would be required. That is one of the issues that come up.

ACTING CHAIR —Are you aware how much they do?

Ms Parfitt —Absolutely. In the submission we have detailed the results of FOI requests, which show that none of the states who have responded have tested since 2005.

ACTING CHAIR —That is the latest information that you have?

Ms Parfitt —Yes.

ACTING CHAIR —You have not followed it up since then?

Ms Parfitt —We were in WA and met people there, and we followed up in South Australia. I do not think we have met with anyone anywhere else.

ACTING CHAIR —Does anybody else have any final questions? If not, thank you. I think we have given you a little bit of homework. If you could get that back to us when you can, that would be great.

Ms Parfitt —Yes, no problem.

ACTING CHAIR —Within a reasonable period would be great. Thank you.

Ms Parfitt —Thanks very much.

[3.37 pm]