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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
17/10/2012
Estimates
HEALTH AND AGEING PORTFOLIO
Food Standards Australia New Zealand

Food Standards Australia New Zealand

CHAIR: We have one more hour on population health. We have the program areas of Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, Office of Gene Technology Regulator, National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme, the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care and the Australian National Preventive Health Agency. We are covering programs 4, 5 and 6 in that hour, including 10 minutes on program 14.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: In relation to your actual financials for 2010-11, do you have the reference of your actual expense there from your annual report?

Mr McCutcheon : Yes, I can provide that information. Our total expenditure in 2010-11 was $22.42 million. That appears on page 136 of the FSANZ annual report for that year.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Then, in relation to 2011?

Mr McCutcheon : For 2011-12 our total expenditure was $23.027 million. Our annual report has not been printed as yet, but that will appear in that when it is tabled in parliament.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Do you operate only the one program? No subprograms?

Mr McCutcheon : That is correct.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: In relation to the 2012-13 budgeted expenses, are you on track?

Mr McCutcheon : On track.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Will you have a surplus or will you be in budget?

Mr McCutcheon : We strive for a balanced budget.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: So there are no changes since the last budget?

Mr McCutcheon : No changes.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: What about staff numbers?

Mr McCutcheon : The average staffing levels have not changed since the last budget.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: So the average staffing level remains at 129?

Mr McCutcheon : Yes. They do fluctuate.

Senator FIERRAVANTI-WELLS: Do the forward estimates on page 417 remain the same?

Mr McCutcheon : Correct, yes.

Senator SIEWERT: Could you confirm that the Legislative and Governance Forum on Food Regulation did take the decision that labelling is to be removed from all irradiated food within two years?

Mr McCutcheon : I will have to take that on notice. I have not got a copy of the whole-of-government response to the Blewett report, which I think is what you are referring to.

Ms Halton : Which is actually a regulatory policy issue for officers in the department.

Senator SIEWERT: It is a department policy issue?

Ms Halton : Yes.

Senator SIEWERT: FSANZ has nothing to do with the labelling of irradiated food?

Mr McCutcheon : Yes, we administer the standards.

Senator SIEWERT: Can you tell me whether there was a decision that that occur?

Ms Halton : No. Recommendation 34 was:

That the requirement for mandatory labelling of irradiated food be reviewed.

It is to be reviewed and what was expected was for FSANZ to review standard 1.5.3, 'Irradiation of food', specifically with a view to assessing the need for the mandatory labelling requirement to continue. It was not expected that this would be undertaken and, obviously, there is a process to go before they do, and recognising that we are only one party to the food agreement. In any event this would not be done until 2013-14.

Senator SIEWERT: I am specifically now asking questions about the GM corn NK603. I am sure you—

Mr McCutcheon : Yes, I am familiar with that one!

Ms Halton : He thinks about it often!

Senator SIEWERT: That was approved by FSANZ in 2002. As I understand it, it is the same variety that has now been subject to the safety tests in the French study. Is that correct?

Mr McCutcheon : There was a French study. It was released by Professor Gilles Seralini, and co-authors, a few weeks ago, I think. That particular GM corn was the subject of that study.

Senator SIEWERT: It has found that it is associated with a number of tumours and organ damage in rats after 120 days.

Mr McCutcheon : They have published the study and they claim to have found a number of concerns. We, along with many other regulators in the world, obtained a copy of that report and we have done a preliminary analysis. I guess at this point of time we have identified a number of issues with the study itself. At this stage there is nothing in the report that would suggest we need to re-open our consideration of that particular GM food. That said, however, we have written to Professor Seralini and asked him for some further information and data so that we can complete an assessment of that.

Senator SIEWERT: What were the issues you found that led you to make that decision?

Mr McCutcheon : I guess the key areas that we thought were deficient were in the design of the study, which used a low number of animals per group; the apparent selective reporting of data; and the failure to present a basic statistical analysis to determine which of the findings were statistically significant, and I guess that is important because that can rule out the possibility that certain differences are merely representative of normal biological variation. So I guess because of those limitations we would really need to have a look at the underpinning data and other information the authors might have used to come to those conclusions.

Senator SIEWERT: You mentioned selective use of data.

Mr McCutcheon : Selective reporting of data. But, again, until we see the full data set we are not in a position to comment.

Senator SIEWERT: So, selective reporting of data relates to the third point, which is what statistical data was used to reach the conclusion?

Mr McCutcheon : That is correct—to conduct a proper statistical analysis.

Senator SIEWERT: In the 2010 ANAO performance audit, which is report No. 15, they made a number of finding around the FSANZ assessment reports. Can I ask what you have done in response to those findings?

Mr McCutcheon : There were quite a number of findings. There were only three recommendations, I think, and basically we have implemented all of those recommendations. They were mainly around improving the way that we publish our information on the website, for example.

You would be aware, Senator, that our process is a very open and transparent one. When we get an application from a company, for example, that wants an assessment or an approval for a GM food, that information is out in the public domain once we start our process. When the FSANZ board makes its final decision and notifies the ministers, all that information is on the website, including the very detailed scientific studies that support that, for everyone to see.

I am just recalling from memory, but I think the recommendations were about making sure we presented that information in a way that was more readily understood and that looked at the different stages of the process where we would publish that information.

Senator SIEWERT: As you said, there were a number of points in those recommendations that they articulated. I will not go through them, as there is not enough time, but the new reporting process picks up all of those points.

Mr McCutcheon : Certainly. We have worked our way through all of those. We have actually found them helpful. We thought they were improvements to our system, in the context of transparency.

Senator DI NATALE: Is it right that FSANZ advises AQIS on the testing regime and then categorises risks on foods according to whether they are low or medium risk? Is that generally the process?

Mr McCutcheon : In our legislation there is a particular function we have, which is to provide assessment policy advice to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry biosecurity—formerly AQIS. What that means, in plain English, is that we provide basic risk-assessment advice to that agency on foods that are imported.

Senator DI NATALE: So if a product came in and it carried the residue of a banned antibiotic, for example—something where there is no maximum allowable level—who makes the decision about what to do with the shipment?

Mr McCutcheon : That would be the enforcement agency, in this case DAFF biosecurity.

Senator DI NATALE: Do you provide them with advice or is there just general—

Mr McCutcheon : Not necessarily. There are a couple of steps here. Firstly, all food has to comply with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. In the case of antibiotic residues, there would be maximum residue limits in that code for particular chemical commodity combinations. That would be the first reference point. Another reference point for them would be to look at the risk list, which is a 100 per cent testing list that DAFF biosecurity has, and if particular products and chemicals are on that then they are subject to that particular arrangement.

Senator DI NATALE: But ultimately it would be their call, in terms of what they—

Mr McCutcheon : Absolutely. We do not have any power in this area. We basically provide advice.

Senator DI NATALE: Is there any communication between the two agencies in communicating metadata on resistant bugs, for example, trends that might be emerging on things like imported seafood and so on? How do we establish that there is a growing problem with a particular resistant bacteria, for example, that is being imported in larger numbers? How would that be picked up?

Mr McCutcheon : We do have an emerging-issues framework that we work with. It is not necessarily targeted at imported food; it is targeted at food in general. If there are trends in particular areas we will have a look at that and if there are any implications for imported food, if imported food is seen to be a potential problem, then clearly we would be in consultation with DAFF about that.

Senator DI NATALE: But that is once the trend has been picked up. I am just trying to work out how we identify an emerging trend. Does AQIS report to you every batch of contaminated food, for example, if we are talking about—

Mr McCutcheon : They do not report to us. They basically publish that material, as I understand it, on their website. It is publicly available. I do not know how frequent it is—I think it might be quarterly or monthly—but there is no requirement for them to provide us with information. We have regular meetings with them, on a monthly basis, and that is an opportunity to discuss any emerging issues that might need their attention.

Senator DI NATALE: Has the issue of antimicrobial resistance been identified as an emerging issue by FSANZ?

Mr McCutcheon : Not to my knowledge. The most recent work we have been involved with in antimicrobial resistance was when we were asked by DAFF—and on that occasion it was Biosecurity Australia—to have a look at potential risks with imported apples from New Zealand, because they use streptomycin over there at different times. So we basically did a risk assessment on that. Our assessment determined that the risks were negligible, and we provided that advice to DAFF. In fact, I think that report we did is, again, publicly available on our website.

Senator DI NATALE: I will leave it there. Thank you.

Senator FURNER: FSANZ has recently done a report on considering allowing dogs in eateries, and you have indicated that it is a low to negligible risk in that report. The Townsville Bulletin on 8 October indicated that the Queensland health minister has turned down dog-friendly legislation for hygiene and safety reasons. Also, the manager at Juliette's in Townsville has indicated that it has caused some concerns with some customers. What is going on in Queensland? Are we getting this legislation through, or not?

Mr McCutcheon : That is a very good question, and I cannot answer it, because it is a Queensland government question.

Ms Halton : These are known in the trade as al fresco dogs.

Mr McCutcheon : Essentially, we did an assessment of the food safety risks, so it was purely the food safety risks associated with having dogs in outdoor dining areas. That scientific assessment indicated that, again, the risks were negligible, so we amended the standard, and that was ultimately ticked off by ministers. It removes that impediment to dogs being in outdoor dining areas that was in the standard. But there are a couple of matters. One is that it does not mean every cafe in the country has to allow dogs in; they have the final say. Secondly, whatever state governments want to do is really their call.

Senator FURNER: In this case Juliette's in Townsville seems to want it and the health minister in Queensland is preventing it from happening.

Ms Halton : This issue has been on the agenda at the Food Regulation Standing Committee, which I chair, on multiple occasions. It is genuinely called al fresco dogs, although there has been a discussion about whether it should be al fresco animals more broadly—whether horses should be included, for example! I can tell you that this piece of work has been going on for some time, including with Queensland officials.

CHAIR: Thank you to the officers of FSANZ. I know there are many questions on notice for you, but thank you very much.