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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
19/10/2011
Estimates
HEALTH AND AGEING PORTFOLIO
Food Standards Australia New Zealand

Food Standards Australia New Zealand

[12:07]

Senator BOSWELL: I do not know who this question should go to. Where are we up to with Labelling logic? What is happening there?

Mr McCutcheon : Senator, that is actually a policy question; it is not a question for FSANZ. I can tell you that the report, as you would be aware, has been received. It is currently being considered by all governments. There will be a food ministers meeting later in the year where that report will be considered. As it was a report to COAG, any recommendations in relation to the individual items in that review will have to be considered by COAG.

Senator BOSWELL: I address this question to one of the departmental people: has the department done a full impact study on how the new system of labelling could impact on certain industries—for instance, sugar, fruit, vegetables, canned food products? My question is directed to Mr McCutcheon.

Ms Halton : Mr McCutcheon is not in a position to answer your question because it is not his responsibility.

Senator BOSWELL: I want someone from the department to answer my question.

Ms Halton : I am from the department and he is from the statutory body. It is the department that manages this from a policy perspective. The officers who are relevant to this are not here for this item, but I can answer the question because I chair the Food Regulation Standing Committee. I can tell you that the way this works is that any of the recommendations that would have a significant regulatory impact will have to have a RIS undertaken on those particular decisions prior to them being accepted and implemented, but we are not at that stage yet.

Senator BOSWELL: So I take it you are going to have this meeting of the ministers in November or December?

Ms Halton : Correct.

Senator BOSWELL: And, if you implement this policy—I realise it has to be from the majority of the state ministers—

Ms Halton : And New Zealand.

Senator BOSWELL: And New Zealand. Before any decision is made, you would have to have an impact study on the fruit industry, the vegetable industry, the sugar industry; is that what you are saying?

Ms Halton : You would have to have a regulatory impact statement done on relevant decisions to determine what the impact and the cost might be. It would therefore depend on which of the recommendations ministers were minded to accept as to which industry might be relevant to the formulation of that RIS.

Senator BOSWELL: Let's take the canning industry, which employs a large number of people in regional areas. If the decision was, 'Right, we're going to implement this on canned fruit', what is the next process? Would you then do an impact study on the canned fruit industry?

Ms Halton : If you had read the recommendations, you would know that there is no recommendation that goes specifically to canned fruit. There is a series of recommendations that go to what the composition of a label might include, and if ministers—

Senator BOSWELL: Can I interrupt you there: so you are saying it will not go on canned fruit?

Ms Halton : No, it would depend on which labelling recommendation ministers wanted to accept as to whether or not it was relevant to, for example, canned fruit. If one of the recommendations they were minded to accept was relevant to canned fruit—and a number of them would be—then the impact on all of the sectors would have to be considered in the completion of a regulatory impact statement.

Senator BOSWELL: I have an article in front of me and it shows milk and it shows Coca-Cola.

Ms Halton : Yes, that would be the traffic light labelling issue.

Senator BOSWELL: That is what I am talking about, a traffic light.

Ms Halton : Indeed, I am extremely familiar with it.

Senator BOSWELL: Can you tell me how milk can be more healthy or less healthy than Coca-Cola, because milk attracts one green light and three amber lights, and Coca-Cola has three green lights and one red light. Would you agree that would imply that milk is less healthy than Coca-Cola?

Ms Halton : That particular example of what might be some of the issues with traffic light labelling is fairly well promulgated. I think it is quite indicative of one of the problems with traffic light labelling. It is fair to say that one of the recommendations—only one—in that report goes to traffic lights. There is another recommendation which goes to interpretive information on labels. But ministers have not considered any of those recommendations yet.

Senator BOSWELL: Can I point out to you another one, which is that pure fruit juice has three greens and a red, and cordial has three greens and an amber. So the implication there would be that cordial is more healthy than pure juice. There is another one here—

Ms Halton : And it would have the red and the amber around its sugar content.

Senator BOSWELL: Yes, I know. This one is pure fruit, having three green labels and one red label, and lollies having three green labels and one red label. The implication there is that pure fruit is just as healthy as lollies. No wonder people are confused. People are worried about this, because it is confusing. Would you agree that the examples I have just showed you—and I have many more of them here—will confuse people over purchases and what they should be buying?

Ms Halton : As I have indicated, there are a number of issues around traffic light labelling. I think you have pointed rightly to some of the examples that are being promulgated as to some of those challenges. But I can underscore that no decisions have been taken on this issue.

Senator BOSWELL: I understand there are no decisions. I am trying to warn you of the implications if traffic light labelling does go ahead. I know it has not gone ahead. I am quite capable of reading the information that is put out. But I am trying to cut this off at the pass, because it will hurt local manufacturers. Take the case of sugar, where CSR are promoting a low-GI sugar, which is for people who have certain health problems, and a low-calorie white and raw sugar blend. They are all going to have to carry health warnings, and yet they are products that are made for people with health problems.

Ms Halton : Sorry—I am unclear what you mean about 'health warnings'.

Senator BOSWELL: Let me try and explain it. CSR are trying to promote healthy sugar and they are making a low-GI sugar for people who have health problems. They are also making a lower-calorie white and raw sugar; that is for people who are obese and want to cut down on sugars. They are going to have to carry health warnings and yet they are products made specifically for—

Ms Halton : I am unaware of any health warning that would be applied. If you would like to give us information, I am happy to come back to you on notice about that.

Senator BOSWELL: It will carry a warning of sugar being an unhealthy product.

Ms Halton : Sorry—we understood you to mean that something in the science and technology apropos this product would require a warning. You are talking about sugar requiring a warning.

Senator BOSWELL: Yes.

Ms Halton : There is not a recommendation in this document about sugar carrying a warning. The food labelling review does not include such a recommendation.

Senator BOSWELL: I am sure CSR will be very happy to hear that, because they are very concerned. If this does go ahead—

Senator McLucas: Can I just be clear: when you say 'this does go ahead', there is a series of recommendations that will go to options. So you cannot sort of say this will go ahead.

Senator BOSWELL: No, no. If the traffic light labelling does go ahead, will that labelling have to be carried by imported products?

Ms Halton : You are way out in front—

Senator BOSWELL: It is always a good place to be—

Ms Halton : of any decision-making process.

Senator BOSWELL: when you are representing hundreds of thousands of farmers; you have got to be out in front.

Ms Halton : Fair point. But you are asking me to answer a hypothetical question and I cannot answer it.

CHAIR: It is my understanding that no decisions have been made in this area and that officers cannot answer questions when there has been no decision made on what is moving forward.

Senator BOSWELL: Madam Chair, with due respect, there is a recommendation—there is a policy that is going to be debated in the health ministers' conference within a month or two months.

CHAIR: And no decision has been made.

Senator BOSWELL: What is the proposition? I would imagine we are not just going to go and debate a blank piece of paper. There will be recommendations go up on traffic light labelling. What I am saying to you is: if traffic light labelling is accepted, does this have to be applied to imported products, or only to Australian products?

Ms Halton : And, because there is no decision, I cannot answer that question.

Senator BOSWELL: What is the recommendation?

Ms Halton : There is, as yet, no recommendation.

Senator BOSWELL: So what you are going to have is all the health ministers gathering—

Ms Halton : To start with, it is actually not health ministers; it is ministers responsible for food. Ministers responsible for food will actually receive input in respect of a couple of matters on which they will have already sought advice from health ministers. But it is actually a matter for the food ministers.

Senator BOSWELL: Will the food ministers make a decision on whether a product that is imported will carry the traffic light labelling or will they not?

Ms Halton : Food ministers will decide what labels should comprise, and when and in what circumstances they would be applied. So they have responsibility but, as I have already indicated, because this report was actually commissioned by COAG, it is not open to food ministers to be the final decision-makers on this; it will actually have to be considered by COAG.

Senator BOSWELL: So COAG is the premiers' meeting, is it?

Ms Halton : And the Prime Minister; yes.

Senator BOSWELL: I still do not understand this, and I am seeking your help. You may have a million problems in there, but this does worry a lot of people in regional Australia who make products for canning, or sugar or whatever. They are concerned that their product that they have under an Australian label will have to compete with the high dollar and with the big chains importing house brands. They are concerned that, if they have to carry this label and the imported product does not, and you get the confusion of red traffic signs, there will be total confusion in the marketplace.

Ms Halton : Can I give you perhaps an assurance? I cannot speculate on what will be decided, but what I can do is give you an absolute assurance. I have only in the last week chaired the most recent meeting of the Food Regulation Standing Committee, which has myself as the chair, agriculture departments, health departments and, in a couple of cases, consumer affairs departments from around the country. What I can assure you is that the issues around these particular matters, your concerns and those examples that you have used will be absolutely, categorically brought to the attention of ministers. I can give a 100 per cent guarantee on that.

Senator BOSWELL: When you put a proposition, does your department put recommendations, or does it just say, 'These are the options'?

Ms Halton : We would brief our ministers, parliamentary secretaries et cetera on our departmental view. There is of course in this particular case a group of ministers who are relevant—the agriculture minister, ministers responsible for consumer affairs. So this is not a simple issue. It is not a one-minister issue. It is a whole-of-government issue. The whole of government in this case has to come to a view, and we are only one jurisdiction in these arrangements.

We have to come to a view as the Commonwealth on what we think of each of these recommendations, including the matters that you rightly raise. Then each of the jurisdictions will go through a similar process and each of those jurisdictions will then come to that meeting with a view on a recommendation-by-recommendation basis. Because with food arrangements the Commonwealth is not a majority—we do not hold the majority of votes; it is us, New Zealand and each of the states and territories—there will no doubt be a discussion on each item.

Senator BOSWELL: On each item?

Ms Halton : Each recommendation in the Labelling Logic report.

Senator BOSWELL: So we may have sugar; we may have canned fruit; we may have fish; we may have a whole range of products.

Ms Halton : No, it is not that kind of item. I apologise if I have confused you. My point is in respect of each recommendation. There are a lot of recommendations in that report. Each one will be considered separately.

Senator BOSWELL: Let us look at the range of products. I asked you before and you said the products will have an impact statement done—

Ms Halton : No; the recommendation will have a RIS done on it. Some of the recommendations go to very broad matters about how food is managed and some of them go to quite specific things. You have pointed to one that is highly contentious, which is the application of traffic-light labelling approaches. That is one recommendation. Each recommendation, if it has potentially a material impact on anybody, will have a RIS done on it.

Senator BOSWELL: So we have milk, tinned fruits, packaged sugars and tinned fish. Are you saying that every one of those products will have a RIS on them?

Ms Halton : No. I am saying that, for example, in relation to traffic-light labelling, if all ministers were minded—and they may not be—a RIS would be done on the impact of the application of traffic-light labelling to food products, and that would include the impacts on different sectors. In order to work out the aggregate impact you would have to consider on a sector-by-sector basis what those impacts would be.

Senator BOSWELL: Will all these RISs be made public?

Ms Halton : RISs are, yes.

Senator BOSWELL: When will those RISs be available?

Ms Halton : That presupposes when decisions are taken.

Senator BOSWELL: Well, it is no good showing a RIS after a decision has been taken.

Ms Halton : No, a draft RIS.

Senator BOSWELL: When will the draft RIS be available?

Ms Halton : There will be no draft RISs until ministers have even considered—so they will not consider even the beginning of these recommendations until the end of the year.

Senator BOSWELL: Can they make a decision on traffic light labelling in this meeting that is in the next month or two?

Ms Halton : No, because it then has to go to COAG, and, if there were to be an in-principle decision that you were minded to accept a recommendation, if that RIS had not been done, it would have to be done, and there are no RISs at the moment.

Senator BOSWELL: So a decision cannot be made on a product until a RIS is done and presented to COAG; is that what you are saying?

Senator BOSWELL: COAG can decide whatever it wants to. Let's be clear about that. If COAG wants to decide not to have a RIS, it could. That has not been the case in this area, but it is theoretically possible. But there is no decision until it has been to ministers and then to COAG; and the normal practice is to have a RIS.

CHAIR: Senator Boswell, can I just interrupt you. Have you sought a briefing from Catherine King's office on this issue?

Senator BOSWELL: No, I have not. But I am coming to the butcher not the block, and this is the department that makes the decisions.

CHAIR: That is not true, Senator.

Ms Halton : No, no, no. We do not. I can categorically assure you on this one. We are not the decision makers.

Senator BOSWELL: Do you know anywhere else in the world that this traffic light system has been tried or implemented?

Ms Halton : Yes, in the United Kingdom—a trial.

Senator BOSWELL: When was that?

Ms Halton : We would have to take that on notice. It has been going for a few years.

Senator BOSWELL: Thank you. I am told I have to wind up now.

CHAIR: Yes, and, Senator Boswell, the process we have is that, when there are issues like this, we go through the minister and get a briefing. I am sure we can get a briefing with Catherine King's office about the whole process for you.

Senator BOSWELL: I will just say that there is a lot of concern out there. Be very careful where you put your feet on this one, because it has implications that blow a lot of people out of the water.

Ms Halton : I think I first had to consider traffic light labelling in the FRSC committee—I hate to say this—nearly 10 years ago. Be assured, many people have informed me in great detail of what they consider to be the issues, and we understand them very well.

Senator BOSWELL: I am sure you will handle them with great dexterity and wisdom.

Senator LUDLAM: I am going to put a bunch of questions to ARPANSA in a minute about food irradiation. But I just want to check with Ms Halton first: if I was asking questions specifically about labelling for products that have been irradiated, would they be directed better to you or to ARPANSA?

Ms Halton : You need to ask here.

Senator LUDLAM: I have a packet here of meat curry premix, which I will not seek to table, because goodness knows what would happen to it. In the box that it comes in, that it goes to the shop in, it says, 'This product has been irradiated in Malaysia'. On the packet that I would pick up in the shop, there is absolutely no mention of it whatsoever. Can you tell me what the story is? What is the point of labelling and what is the basic framework?

Mr McCutcheon : There is a specific requirement in the food standards code for foods that have been irradiated to be labelled as such. The particular issue you have raised I will have to take on notice, in terms of the actual food item that requires the statement. It may well be an enforcement issue, but it is something where I will need to look at the particular product and follow it up with the relevant enforcement agencies.

CHAIR: I am sure Senator Ludlam will provide you with the product.

Senator LUDLAM: I will. As far as the person buying the stuff in the shop is concerned, there is no notification whatsoever. So we only found out about this because we got one of the boxes that it was wholesaled in. Thank you.

CHAIR: Senator Siewert and Senator Fierravanti-Wells have kindly said they will put their questions to FSANZ on notice because of time restrictions. So I thank witnesses and now move to the Australian National Preventive Health Agency.