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Standing Committee on Agriculture, Resources, Fisheries and Forestry
20/08/2012
Role of science for the future of fisheries and aquaculture

HEALY, Dr Marion Joy, Executive Manager, Food Standards Australia New Zealand

McCUTCHEON, Mr Steve, Chief Executive Officer, Food Standards Australia New Zealand

[09:14]

CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee does not require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that the hearing is a formal proceeding of the parliament and warrants the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt of parliament.

We have received your submission, which is No. 46 for us. You might have some introductory remarks, and then we probably have some questions for you.

Mr McCutcheon : Thank you, Chair. I had not prepared an introductory statement. I thought our submission was fairly clear about our role in this area.

CHAIR: You could maybe just outline the role of food standards.

Mr McCutcheon : All right. Food Standards Australia New Zealand, or FSANZ, is an independent statutory authority established under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act 1991. It operates as an integral part of the food regulation system for Australia and New Zealand. The food regulation system is described in the Food Regulation Agreement made between the states and territories and the Commonwealth, and that was made on 3 July 2008. The primary purpose of the system, as articulated in that agreement, is to provide safe food controls for the purposes of protecting public health and safety.

The primary method by which FSANZ achieves the objects of the FSANZ Act is to regulate the supply of food in Australia and New Zealand by making food standards. When making food standards, FSANZ is required to achieve some particular objectives in addition to achieving the objects of the act. The additional standard-setting objectives are to protect public health and safety; to provide adequate information relating to food to enable consumers to make informed choices; and to prevent misleading or deceptive conduct. The FSANZ Act also requires standards to be based on risk analysis using the best available scientific evidence; to promote consistency with international standards; to promote an efficient and internationally competitive food industry; and to promote fair trading in food products. Standards should also be developed with regard to policy guidelines developed by the ministerial forum now known as the COAG Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation.

Standards developed by FSANZ do not have a direct legal effect. Rather, the Food Regulation Agreement provides that states and territories adopt or incorporate the code into state or territory law, and states and territories have enacted legislation to implement their part of the agreement.

CHAIR: Thanks very much. We have received a lot of evidence in relation to prawn farming in Australia, and there is now a standard of no discharge, or nil release, or zero net discharge, into Australian waters. This, of course, is not the standard that applies in other parts of the world. We have also received evidence about frozen prawns that there are a lot of pests and a lot of diseases in prawns that are not part of the Australian make-up and that freezing prawns is not a way of destroying those pests; the only way to do that is by cooking. Is that the standard that we use—cooked prawn meat that comes into Australia? Is that the Australia New Zealand standard?

Mr McCutcheon : No, our standards are focused on protecting public health and safety, so they are very much designed to ensure that people do not get food borne illness from seafood they eat. The standards that are set out in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code apply to all product, whether it is produced in Australia or imported.

CHAIR: So there is another standard? Our standards do not deal with pests and diseases?

Mr McCutcheon : No, not the standards in the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

CHAIR: That is dealing with public health?

Mr McCutcheon : That is right. Just to give you an indication: the sorts of standards in the Food Standards Code that would apply to seafood are the standards that limit the chemical residues that can be present in seafood from the use of agricultural and veterinary chemicals, and the standard that sets maximum levels for certain potential chemical contaminants—I am talking about environmental contaminants like mercury, for example, a heavy metal.

There are standards that set microbiological limits for human pathogens and other microorganisms, and there is a standard that provides permissions for food additives. So if you are preparing seafood products and you want to put something like additives into them then you require permission to do that. For some of those permissions maximum levels are prescribed. The last general one is the labelling requirements. There is a labelling standard in the code. That also applies to all foods, including seafood.

CHAIR: We take a minimal risk approach to this. We just ask that foods coming into Australia are checked against a checklist. There are certain checks occasionally on imports. Then it is up to the importer to make sure that the product is at the standard that it says that it is. Is that how we operate?

Mr McCutcheon : Generally, yes. There are two categories of food that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry look at at the border. One is what they call risk category foods. Certainly there are a number of seafood products that are in that category. They are subject to 100 per cent testing at the border for a range of things. Then there is the second category foods, which are called random surveillance category foods. They are just subject to the five per cent testing arrangements.

CHAIR: I have had some representations in relation to New Zealand importing food products and relabelling them and then exporting them into Australia. Has your agency looked at any complaints in that area?

Mr McCutcheon : I am not aware of any complaints, but it might be worth pointing out that under the Trans-Tasman Mutual Recognition Arrangement—generally the Food Standards Code is a joint code, so those standards I mentioned earlier apply in both Australia and New Zealand—food that meets the requirements of New Zealand can be sold in Australia and vice versa. The only exception is that if it is listed as a risk category food and there are special food safety issues identified for that then it is subject to the testing arrangements at the border. The same would apply for any quarantine risks as well.

CHAIR: I take it that we have harmonised standards between us and the New Zealanders?

Mr McCutcheon : The standards that are in the Food Standards Code are exactly the same in both country, with the exception of maximum residue limits. I mentioned that earlier. New Zealand have their own standard for that. That reflects their particular usage of agricultural and veterinary chemicals in that country.

CHAIR: So it is quite acceptable for them to import product if it meets Australian and New Zealand standards, relabel it and put it into Australia?

Mr McCutcheon : If it meets the requirements of the Food Standards Code, yes.

Mr SCHULTZ: Just on that issue, how can we have any confidence in the standards set by Food Standards Australia New Zealand in relation to New Zealand when the apple industry has proven quite successfully that the biosecurity methods practised in New Zealand do not match the rhetoric that comes from New Zealand? How can we have any confidence whatsoever that the standards related to seafood are any different to that?

Mr McCutcheon : That is probably better directed at the enforcement agencies. FSANZ does not do the enforcement of standards. We basically set the standards and then the states and territories or DAFF at the border administer or enforce those standards. That said, we do not have any evidence—and I am talking about food safety risks here, not biosecurity risks; that is totally out of our remit—to suggest that New Zealand systems are any worse than Australian systems on the food safety front.

Mr SCHULTZ: That is an interesting observation considering that New Zealand has a track record of taking us to the World Trade Organization to bypass some of the standards that we set for our food imports.

Just talking about the health of seafood: can you tell the committee what checks are carried out on seafood for sale in supermarkets to test the veracity of public health relating to microbiological or chemical contamination? What is the frequency of that?

Mr McCutcheon : Again, that is a matter that you would need to raise with the enforcement agencies. For example, if we were in New South Wales—I know that you are a New South Welshman—it would be the New South Wales Food Authority that would be responsible for checking product for conformance with the Food Standards Code. At FSANZ we do national surveys from time to time, including the Australian Total Diet Study. That does look at the prevalence of things like chemical residues in foods and the like. But they are fairly broad-ranging surveys. Targeted enforcement action is actually done by the jurisdictions.

Mr SCHULTZ: So you look at regulatory activities and scientific evidence on food and health standards from other agencies?

Mr McCutcheon : We use scientific evidence to set the standards, including particular limits that might apply in standards. But once those standards are in place it is up to the states and territories to enforce those. Again, they would use their own resources and scientific data to do that.

Mr SCHULTZ: How much does Biosecurity Australia impact on impartial regulation decisions undertaken by FSANZ, and how does the fair trade process of the World Trade Organisation impact on those regulations?

Mr McCutcheon : To the first question: we do not have any special relationship with Biosecurity Australia in setting our standards. Our standards are set in an open and consultative way, so if Biosecurity Australia want to raise particular issues with our standards they are quite free to do so. Occasionally they will seek our advice on matters where there are potential food safety issues. For example, someone mentioned New Zealand apples earlier: we did some work for Biosecurity Australia, assessing the potential risks of antimicrobial resistance associated with some of the antibiotics that New Zealand might have been using.

With regard to the second part of your question about the World Trade Organisation: every time we make changes or bring in new standards we are obliged to notify the WTO, and the WTO member countries can, of course, comment and provide feedback to us on those standards.

Mr SCHULTZ: How much confidence can we as a committee have in the ability of any Australian organisation, whether it is a joint organisation with New Zealand or otherwise, that those organisations are placing the same standards in relation to food health safety for the Australian community on imported food that they are placing on the exporters?

Mr McCutcheon : As I said earlier, the standards indicated apply equally to imports and domestically produced food. The import side is initially administered by DAFF at the border, but states and territories also undertake checking of foods, including imported foods, once they are in the jurisdictions.

Mr SCHULTZ: Can I just make a final remark? You do not have to make any comment to it. Our previous inquiries, particularly in relation to issues such as the honey bee problem that we are facing, do not engender any great confidence in me that Biosecurity Australia or any other Australian organisation, government or otherwise, that is responsible for incursions and health issues in Australia, are doing the job as well as they are making the community believe that they are doing. I just make that comment.

Mr LYONS: Who would collect the data that you suggest in your recommendation, and how would it be funded?

Mr McCutcheon : There is a number of ways the data is collected. For example, if companies make an application to FSANZ to amend the Food Standards Code then there is an expectation that they will provide the data, so they generate that data themselves.

If FSANZ itself is initiating the work then we can obtain the data from our sources within Australia. They include, for example, academic institutions where they might have done some research, state and territory governments if that data is available, industry, us if we commissioned research or even overseas regulatory authorities or other bodies that might have that data. So there is a wide range of sources. Of course, when we go out for public consultation we will often identify what particular data we would like to assist us in progressing that.

Dr Healy : The recommendation reflects our experience that there are often data gaps, particularly in the Australian context. So it would be useful to have a more consistent and cohesive mechanism for collecting information that would help us look at the public health and safety risks.

Mr LYONS: How do you want it funded?

Dr Healy : I guess funding is the difficulty. There are currently a number of funding mechanisms. The R&D corporations are one mechanism, but it is the consistency of information being available that is problematic.

Mr McCutcheon : What it means is that, the more data we have, the more we can use it in coming to a decision. But if there are data gaps then we will become very conservative in the way we come to a risk based decision.

Mr LYONS: What are the data gaps?-

Dr Healy : There are a number of gaps around various toxins that might be found particularly in shellfish in terms of the level—

Mr LYONS: Are you talking about both imported and local products?

Dr Healy : Yes, just generally. As we have already stated, the requirements apply to both imported and domestically produced products. When we are setting a standard we are interested in the level at which a toxin has an effect on a person who is consuming it, how much of a product someone is consuming in Australia and what levels of the toxin might be problematic.

A good example of where we had some difficulties was a couple of years ago in South Australia, where there was pinotoxin. There were problems in oysters which caused various production areas to be closed. So the lack of information about the levels and the amount of consumption meant that a fairly conservative approach had to be taken by the South Australian health authorities. There are the same kinds of gaps around the level of microbial contamination in produce in the Australian marketplace. In some cases there are difficulties in finding a method of testing. Norovirus is one example.

Mr LYONS: I know the enforcement is not the problem. What I am trying to get at is this. You set the standard with some limited information as to the effect—what happens if people eat it. If you have these limitations, how do you go about setting a standard?

Dr Healy : We use a risk based approach, and it is an approach that is used internationally through what is called the Codex Alimentarius. So there are two elements to risk: one is the likelihood of an adverse effect and the second is the severity of that effect. So we are looking at those two elements.

There is a certain amount of literature information that is going to be available, so we will pull in that literature information. If we are talking about a microbe, we will be looking for instances of food borne illness, particularly in Australia, but we will draw in overseas information if Australian information is not available. Then we are looking for information around the level of either the chemical or the microbial contaminant that might be present in the food, and then we will be looking at how much of the food a person will be consuming.

So there are a number of pieces of information that we will be drawing together to look at those two elements of risk. We can make some extrapolations. In terms of food consumption, we have information from various time points. The most comprehensive is still 1995 data, but there has been some data collected from 2007 and there is currently another survey underway.

Levels of contamination and information about health impacts, particularly in the Australian context, are probably the most problematic areas for us. So we will draw together all of the information. We can sometimes make an extrapolation on the data we have, and then we need to make a decision. As we have already said, if the information is not complete then the decision will be a bit on the conservative side.

Mr LYONS: This is probably not your group, but the enforcement agency obviously would take some samples, send it off to a lab and chop it up and play with it for awhile and see what it grows. What links are there between their findings and yours? How is the science brought together?

Dr Healy : There is what is called a national coordinated surveillance plan now operating across FSANZ as well as the various enforcement agencies and the broader agencies from the imported food side. That coordinated plan has been running now for about eight years. Each year a series of priorities are established, and then there is a coordinated process across various jurisdictions to collect information.

Mr LYONS: Do you meet with them?

Dr Healy : Yes. So that is one way in which there is a coordinated approach. And it means that we get more samples, while the testing methodology is the same, so it is a more powerful survey. But there are other coordination mechanisms.

Mr LYONS: The enforcement agency sends it off to a lab, the lab finds some new bug, and they contact you. Do you then incorporate it in your standard?

Mr McCutcheon : There are a couple of things. They will contact everyone. The fact that one jurisdiction might find something will automatically require them to notify all the jurisdictions, because food crosses borders. Depending on the seriousness of the issue, there will be a coordinated response to that through, again, the national incident response arrangements that we have. From a FSANZ point of view, we coordinate all that, but we would also look at the standard. If there are any issues around the standard itself, then that would prompt us to review that. If there is not—if it is purely a matter of the particular standard not being complied with because of poor practice or whatever it might be—then that is something the jurisdictions would pursue.

Mr MITCHELL: I am just curious about what you see as being the greatest biosecurity risks for both imported and domestically grown seafood products.

Mr McCutcheon : We do not have a view on the biosecurity risks; we basically look at the food safety risks. From a food safety point of view, the sanitary part of the WTO's arrangements, that would be around microbial risks—food-borne illness from microbiological organisms—and certainly seafood is one of those products that is of a higher risk than others in that area. Another area is natural toxins. Because the products are taken from the sea, some toxins are fairly serious. And I guess there is potential chemical contamination, particularly from, say, aquaculture, where things like antibiotics are used. In a food safety sense they would be the three areas we would be looking at.

Dr Healy : And in terms of the microbiological risk, it is particularly risky if the product is being imported already cooked. That is simply because the possibility of handling post-cooking introduces potential for recontamination.

CHAIR: I am sorry; I did not quite understand that.

Dr Healy : Cooking kills many microbiological organisms. So if the product is being imported already cooked, then there will be handling of the product post-cooking, which introduces the potential for further recontamination before it reaches the plate of the consumer.

Mr McCutcheon : I will just extend it a little bit, if that is okay. Our advice to DAFF, in terms of what they should be testing for at the border for these high-risk foods, is as follows: for fish in general, you look for things like histamines and Listeria; for molluscs, E. coli, Listeria and some toxins; and, for crustacea, Salmonella, Vibrio and so on. So quite a detailed assessment is done on particular subcategories of seafood, and they all have their unique characteristics around potential risks to food safety.

CHAIR: You can make risky food edible in a lot of ways. You can spray it with lots of things that will kill anything bad; you can radiate it and so on. But, with regard to the chemicals used in these processes, I am interested in the standards we have in Australia compared to the standards used for food that comes from overseas—for example, the Europeans refuse beef with any growth hormones. What we are coming across in this inquiry is the belief that, although we are setting standards for our own fisheries on what the public can eat, and other environmental considerations, we are importing products from countries where there might be lower standards of food safety, and there are concerns about that. So, in relation to the use of chemicals and antibiotics, are the standards the same overseas? Or do you just say, 'It's not our business'?

Mr McCutcheon : In the context of food, they are, because the standards that are in the food standards code have to be met by both domestic producers and people importing food into the country. For example, there are some antibiotics or antimicrobials that are permitted for use and there are particular maximum levels for those in the code; they have to be complied with by domestic and imported product. If something turns up at the border with an unapproved chemical in it, then, under the standards in the code, that is noncompliant and it would be a matter for the enforcement agency to take action on.

CHAIR: There is a move towards using no antibiotics in Australia. If that applies, how will that affect imports?

Mr McCutcheon : Well, again, imports have to meet the same standards as domestic products.

CHAIR: So these things are aligned. Sometimes there are standards set by supermarket chains. But the Australian community can trust that the same standards that apply to anything produced in Australia also apply to imports?

Mr McCutcheon : Correct. The standards in the code apply to all food, regardless of the source.

CHAIR: Okay. Thank you very much for your time today; we do appreciate it.

Mr McCutcheon : Pleasure.

CHAIR: We have a little bit of housekeeping. I have to go at about 10; I am not quite sure what time I will be back. What we might do is make a subcommittee.

Mr MITCHELL: So moved.

CHAIR: Thank you.

Proceedings suspended from 9:44 to 9:57