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Australian Food and Grocery Council Dinner: speech.

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Speech Dr Michael Wooldridge Minister for Health and Aged Care

Australian Food and Grocery Council Dinner Canberra 23 May 2001

I am delighted to have this opportunity to address the Australian Food and Grocery Council Dinner this evening and welcome you to post-Budget Canberra.

Obviously, I come here tonight with a health perspective on your industry and so I will not be reflecting significantly on the grocery side of your activities, but there are nevertheless remarkable parallels between the health and food sectors:

They are both of direct, personal importance to every Australian ● We all have individual preferences and opinions about what we like - and what is best for us ● And cost, quality and safety are of paramount concern - not necessarily in that order. ●

Of course, what I am really saying is that the health industry is becoming increasingly focussed to a consumer perspective, as has always been the case for the food and grocery industries.

We have seen explosive growth in medical knowledge in the twentieth century, but I would argue there has been a considerable lag in community awareness of the implications of these advances for our personal health.

I believe our community is developing a sense of certainty and confidence in our healthcare system - and is therefore increasingly willing to hold health providers and governments accountable for their ability to achieve excellence in community healthcare.

And from the other side of the coin, governments and health providers are still in the early stages of integrating a consumer focus into the formulation and implementation of health policies. At the same time, we have an increasingly high profile for health issues in the media - especially concerning the links between diet and health - and also an increasing emphasis among our youth towards personal empowerment and freedom of choice.

Taken together, these trends mean that a great revolution is underway in the health sector - being the rise of the health consumer.

And as consumer issues are central to your industry I believe we have much to learn from you in developing a consumer focus for our health activities.

This is not the only link between the health and food sectors of course, since food is a key determinant of

good health and this is increasingly recognised by consumers and policy-makers alike as a vital intersection between our industries.

This has a number of implications, including finding ways we can use food and food promotion to promote improved health, as well as how we can ensure that our food is safe and does not affect our health adversely.

I know that these issues are of fundamental importance to the Australian Food and Grocery Council and that you take issues of food quality extremely seriously.

On the first of these issues, I believe the Folate Health Claim pilot program has demonstrated that we can shake off the ancient prohibition that stopped the snake oil salesmen and peddlers of patent nostrums from making untrue claims about the efficacy of their potions.

Given the adoption of appropriate safeguards and solid evidence - as we had with the link between the use of folate and the prevention of neural tube defects - we have an opportunity to move on from our previous blanket ban on linking specific foods to specific health conditions.

Indeed yesterday's Budget contains a related measure, since our increased rebates for GP's to cover longer consultations for people with complex and chronic conditions, including diabetes, will inevitably result in more lifestyle and diet advice being given by GP's.

In a similar way, our Dietary Guidelines on Nutrition are an important indication of our interest in the link between good health and food.

These Guidelines are under review at the moment and I am looking forward to receiving the advice of the expert committee on how we can move forward positively by using these Guidelines to promote good health.

We have also widely disseminated some consumer-friendly booklets on the preparation of food including:

The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, ● The Core Food Groups booklet, ● and the Eat Well for Life booklet. ●

Food safety

The complementary issue to consider to health promotion is that of food safety, and linking back to my earlier remarks, this is a key driver of the developing consumer focus in health.

As you know, we are implementing a package of measures to strengthen and reform food safety based on an agreement between all States, Territories and the Commonwealth.

The Council of Australian Governments Intergovernmental Food Regulation Agreement was signed on 3 November last year by the Prime Minister and all Australian Premiers and Chief Ministers.

These new arrangements represent a substantial strengthening of food safety on several counts:

●They ensure coordination of food safety between portfolios including health, agriculture and consumer


●They provide for comprehensive food standards to be developed by the new body, Food Standards

Australia New Zealand; ●They give greater emphasis to the evidence-base in setting food standards, and substantially improve

the effectiveness of implementation of the standards; ●They strengthen arrangements for consultation at a strategic level with all interested parties, so we can

work cooperatively, rather than encouraging division within the industry.

●They ensure there is national consistency in the interpretation, administration and enforcement of food

regulation; ●and finally, they would ensure consumers have sufficient information to make informed choices.

Our new food regulatory framework is designed to operate efficiently by reducing costs to industry, government and consumers.

And it seeks to improve the timeliness and responsiveness of the food standards setting process while maintaining transparency and community confidence in the food regulatory system.

As you will know, this legislation has been debated in the Senate over the last few days, with disastrous results, since the Labor Party and Democrats combined to make several amendments, some of which simply make the scheme untenable or unworkable.

I will be discussing this situation with Senator Tambling and we will obviously need to have further discussions with Labor and the Democrats and probably seek advice on the views of the States, Territories and New Zealand.

But at this stage, I am not sure there is any point in returning the Bill to the House of Representatives, given the seriousness of the issues under conflict in this Bill, which go directly against the principles underpinning the Intergovernmental Agreement.

Genetically-modified organisms

The similar issue of genetically modified food is also on the radar screen at the moment, and while I realise you have heart-felt grievances over the labelling of genetically-modified food, I would like to consider the bigger picture tonight, concerning the national system of controls over genetically-modified organisms, or GMO's. These controls will come into operation on June 21st and have been developed after extensive public consultation.

I believe they are an excellent example of Australian governments working collectively to the greater good of protecting the people and our environment, while also promoting our research potential. I also believe this control framework will provide a climate of community confidence in which the potential benefits of GMOs can be exposed and developed, as well as effectively regulating the risks associated with this technology.

Recent experience with breaches of voluntary conditions by companies conducting genetically modified crop trials in Tasmania indicates the need for these reforms.

At the same time, we have been careful to ensure that our hand is not so heavy that it will stymie research and development or limit the possibilities of this exciting technology.

The process set out in the Gene Technology Act provide that the views of all interested parties can be

taken into account by the new Regulator and the regulatory scheme will:

Require open and transparent public consultation; ● Provide the Regulator with access to a wide range of expert advice, including three advisory committees ¾ an expert scientific committee, an ethics committee, and a community consultative committee;


Ensure timely decision-making to provide certainty to industry; ● And set out a wide range of controls that are commensurate with the risks involved. ●

For example, all applications for GMOs to be released into the environment will be automatically forwarded to each State and Territory Government, existing regulators and the Commonwealth Environment Minister for advice, with public submissions also invited.

Where work is being done in contained facilities, there is also an opportunity for more stream-lined risk assessments to be undertaken by the Regulator.

There has been much emotion around the debate on genetically modified organisms, but our approach is firmly based on evidence and extensive consultation.

Overall, I believe this regulatory system provides an excellent operating environment in which biotechnology in Australia can develop, while protecting the health of our community and our environment.

Donate Food Day

I have a very pleasant duty to perform tonight, which is to announce Australia's largest ever peace-time donation of food and groceries, in time for next week's second annual 'Donate Food Day'.

This mass donation of $10 million worth of shop quality food and groceries will be made over the next 12 months, to Foodbank Australia for redistribution to the needy via 1,400 welfare and community support agencies, such as St Vincent de Paul and the Salvation Army.

I understand the total donation would fill 85,000 supermarket trolleys.

This is an extraordinary act of corporate generosity and I congratulate the more than 40 food and grocery companies and the Australian Food and Grocery Council for participating in this program.

I encourage other businesses to get behind this impressive program by also making a commitment to Foodbank Australia, and helping those in our community who need help the most.


Finally, I would like to touch on an issue that I see as central to the future of the food and grocery industry - the importance of innovation.

Our understanding of the contribution of good food to health, points to an exciting future for the food industry, using innovation to continually improve food quality and explore the health benefits provided by the food you produce and distribute.

I know that the industry commissions its own nutrition research, including by using the data compiled in the Commonwealth National Nutrition Survey, and the talents of the CSIRO Division of Nutrition.

If we continue to harness the growing evidence between diet and health while developing the benefits of biotechnology, I believe we can make extraordinary advances in human nutrition here in Australia - with the potential to benefit many people around the world.

We will only achieve these results if governments and industry work together cooperatively and build upon existing alliances to realise the potential we have to continuously improve and advance food quality and safety.

This is an exciting time for the food and grocery industry as we unlock the secrets of biotechnology and develop the scientific evidence for the links between food and health and I thank you for the opportunity to reflect on these issues tonight.


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Published on Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care web site 24 May 2001 Commonwealth Department of Health and Aged Care URL: