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Tomorrow's food regulation.



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FSANZ Home > Media Releases & Publications > Speeches > Speeches 2004 > Graham Peachey:Tomorrows Food Regulation (7 September 2004)

Tomorrow’s Food Regulation

Graham Peachey Chief Executive Officer, Food Standards Australia New Zealand

Annual Food and Grocery Industry Seminar

Federation Ballroom,Hyatt Hotel, Canberra 7 September 2004

Introduction

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.

My topic is an ambitious one - ' Tomorrow’s Food Regulation'.

A look back

Before looking into the crystal ball of the future I would like to look back briefly from where we have come from.

When I first became involved in food standards matters some ten years ago, arrangements were geared around local requirements. The (then) National Food Authority had the task of recommending standards to the Council of Health Ministers.

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Things were different.

For a start we only had 37 staff. And I must confess, some went grey before their time!

Our first annual report noted ‘… on 19 August 1991 the infant National Food Authority opened for business. It did so with only a small core of staff … with no procedures …with inadequate temporary accommodation. … low staff morale … [all realising that] from that first day the … clock was ticking, whether we were ready or not.’

Prior to this, Government had commented that food regulatory arrangements (and I am quoting) ‘impeded gains in public safety and consumer protection sought by the community.’

The regulator and government were not happy!

The NFA was required to set uniform food standards for Australia - New Zealand didn’t join the process until 1996 - and we drew together a mix of standards into a single Food Standards Code.

Many of these standards had a history and most had been established decades prior to this in a very different world.

Food - then and now

Consumers had different expectations at that time and these were reflected, in part, in the food regulations.

The 50s and 60s was a time when the man of the house was the ‘bread winner’ and great store was put in ‘fresh is best’ - home deliveries were relatively commonplace. Our basic fare was simple and main meals were probably meat and three vegetables. Eating out was an occasional treat and ethnic cuisine was rare.

I recall life in the 60’s - the billy of milk was delivered to my auntie’s front door in Devonport. It arrived ‘fresh’ each day and sat in the morning sun until we got out of bed. Mr Field used to drop by each Wednesday and take the weekly grocery

orders. We had the big Sunday lunch - a roast made in the ‘dripping’ that was kept in a container in the fridge.

There was no dramatic change in the 70’s and 80’s.

Even 10 years ago - in the 90’s - food regulation was quite different to what it is today. Food standards were characterised by so-called ‘vertical’, commodity based requirements. They were prescriptive - there were lots of details. And there were individual (and detailed) compositional standards for products like pickles, jams, honey and sauces. They have gone now.

At that time genetically modified foods and food irradiation were in their infancy. There was more concern about eating disorders than obesity.

Changes

To understand the changes we face, I would like to reflect on what is pushing us along from the ‘outside’. Such forces include the growth in technology, socio-demographic factors, a new tide of globalisation and, what some would see as, a challenge to authority

There is no doubt that circumstances can change quickly - especially in Australia where we are well known as early adopters of new technology. Food manufacturing technologies are no exception - nor is the interest in new technologies in other fields.

Just look at how mobile phones have taken off in Australia - we all have one. We are now handing in our compact disc players for an ‘i pod ’ - its a pocket size computer that stores over 5000 songs; even our running shoes have new bounce. Technology is changing us all.

Added to this, we all face competing demands. We are all in a rush - there is less and less time and there are greater and greater expectations on us all. The Sunday roast is long gone. Convenience is pushing demand. I’m the first to admit that I have become expert in quick and easy meals - sometimes without much effort from me. Just add the water.

More of us are eating out - a café culture has developed. Wander around some of Canberra’s suburban shopping centres like Manuka or Kingston and you will see what I mean. Inner city apartment living is also increasing. I am told that some home units are even built without kitchens.

The market reports are full of optimism - markets are opening up to our products in an increasingly competitive industry.

We have interest in this - we were something of a trade ‘experiment’ ourselves. The TTMRA provided the rationale for a trans Tasman regulator - and industry provided a lot of the push for the single market in food. Regulatory barriers to trade between Australia and New Zealand have been effectively been dismantled with the advent of the joint food standards code.

The figures

We all know that the food industry is an essential part of our economy today. It is likely to continue to be so in the future.

In 2002-03 consumers spent $80 billion on food and liquor. This accounts for about 46% of total Australian retail spending.

Around 187,000 people are employed in food processing.

Our role

It is within this environment of industry growth that the regulator needs to demonstrate its ‘value add’.

We do this, in part, through our track record on food standards - each carefully crafted to protect public health and safety and to ensure consumers can make an informed choice. This, in turn, underpins our strong reputation as a supplier of safe food.

In doing so, we set standards with regard to national food policy - we also have regard to costs, international approaches, the implications for trade … the list goes on. At the end of the day, we depend on the best available science.

In Australia, our reach extends from ‘paddock to plate’. For the first time we have responsibility for safety throughout the food chain. Because of this we have new constituency - our agriculture and seafood industries. And also because of this, trade and health issues confront each other where they may not have done so in the past.

FSANZ also carries out food surveillance and we have a role in post market activities with our state and territory partners.

In recent times the Board’s role has changed - from one making recommendations to Ministers, to a decision maker in its own right (with some checks and balances).

Once developed, food standards are adopted into state, territory and New Zealand legislation. They apply to both imported and locally produced foods.

Planning for the future

Of course, hindsight is always pretty clear - it is predicting the future of food regulation that is more complex.

Our challenge, as regulators, is to ensure that our system is flexible enough to cope with change, whatever the future may bring.

As a start, we look to the future, monitor emerging issues and consider trends. We work hard to keep our international networks alive and we foster a cooperative environment, open to an exchange of information across borders.

In and outside the region

Will this and the pressures of the ‘international community’ bring with it pressure for regulatory convergence?

While ever a single market sits at the back of the minds of some - there will be a push for greater harmonisation of regulatory arrangements. Greater regulatory harmonisation should, in its own way, assist opportunities for market access

for new and innovative products. And increased efficiencies should, in turn, provide a wider range of choice at reduced costs to consumers.

The information superhighway and associated technological improvements have opened doors and the worldwide distribution of food and ingredients is becoming more commonplace. Just look on the supermarket shelves.

One down side of all of this - a food emergency on the other side of the world is reported here in a blink of the eye. The effects can be profound.

The Belgian dioxin emergency in 1999 is a case in point. Contamination of animal feed saw nearly all of the Belgian food supply affected, exports closed down and there were recalls of Belgian products in Australia. I was there at the time and remember the local reaction.

Graphic reports on the UK BSE experience will long be remembered - even the colour added by local reporters, fuelling speculation about the real risks.

However, our attention should not always been on the northern hemisphere. While trading arrangements have been established in Europe and North America - there are those in our region. And, of course, FSANZ itself is a product of the Trans Tasman Mutual Recognition agreement that allows harmonisation between Australia and New Zealand.

Trade considerations are a vital part of food regulation and will continue to be so. Standards are developed to adhere to the sanitary and phyto-sanitary requirements of the WTO and in doing so we ensure that we do not set up technical barriers to trade.

We are naturally sensitive to all of this and our voice continues to be heard in Codex meetings and other international fora. We also continue to liaise closely with other food regulatory agencies around the world.

Our approach is no accident as we strive to develop better

understanding and common approaches - all of which should facilitate trade well into the future.

Our community

So how does (or will) this all play out in practice now and in the future?

A number of key issues stand out. Not the least being the fact that our population is ageing.

In the early 70’s 8% of the population was over 65 years old. In 2001-02, 13% was over 65. And in 2041 it is estimated that 25% of the population will be over 65. There are clear health implications. A growing vulnerable group is around the corner.

While on ‘ageing’ - and on a lighter note - it was reported in the media on Saturday that we can expect (in the 2020’s) - when the baby boomers are in their 60’s and 70’s that our menu will have larger print, the food on the menu’s will be vastly different. ‘Fat free’ and ‘salt free’ will be there. Light menus will be highlighted. The commentator went on to say that we may be seeking blander foods - less garlic, less onions, less acid based foods - all this could play havoc with the boomer digestive system in their 60’s and 70’s. Apparently, families will be smaller - and we will ‘grazing’ during the day rather than sitting down to the big family roast.

It is without doubt that the consumers of today are becoming increasingly affluent - they are relatively well educated and health conscious.

Consumers (that’s us) travel more, here and overseas, and we are quick to make comparisons. We have access to more information - and sometimes we can be overwhelmed with advice, alternatives and promises of a better life. We are open to trying things that are different - even exotic.

FSANZ fields numerous enquiries each day from the ‘worried well’. We are clearly not alone - we all face the questions from an increasingly knowledgeable and, at times, increasingly cynical constituency.

The popular media continues to focus on food issues - some times running old stories to keep the public interest in step with pressure for an upward movement in ratings. A good story sometimes has little regard to issues that you and I worry about. Thrown into the melting pot are changing perceptions and views.

In managing this, we need to continue to watch out for matters of attitude as well as fact - perceived risk is an issue for us all, and we need to do better with our risk communication generally.

While on this matter - and despite what I said earlier about the scramble for new technologies - consumers have acted differently about technology and food. This has been demonstrated, time and again, when the science gets ahead popular attitudes and understandings.

As an example - the take up of GM foods has probably been slower than anticipated. The same applies to irradiated foods, despite our very rigorous safety assessments. Industry invests, industry innovates and we run the ruler over the safety issues, yet the take up is slow.

This is not always surprising. There are a number of forces at work. Not the least being the immediate and practical impact on individuals.

Although Australians are often quick adopters of new technologies, it is unlikely that consumers will accept something new if there is no (obvious) immediate advantage to them. To date the advantages of GM foods have been to agribusiness - GM food has not always proved cheaper or tastier for the consumer and this is coupled with uncertainty about the unknown.

Of interest, we all seem happy enough to take our (GM) medicine - in this case, the immediate benefits are known and the risks of not doing so are not worth contemplating.

In the future, this may change and consumers may become more accepting. If practical benefits can be demonstrated - as

an example, we have an application to amend the Food Standards Code for an ice structuring protein. If this protein holds up to its promise - and prevents an ice cream falling off its stick - then I think all of us will all be out there buying more ice creams!

A new polarisation

On a more serious note, there does appear to be a polarisation of consumer views. At one end are consumers who are happy with value for money, convenience food that will be cheaper and save time in their busy lives.

At the other end of the spectrum are the higher socioeconomic categories that are pushing for (dare I say) ‘slow food’ - as well as gourmet products, local produce and farmers’ markets.

Added to this, there appears to be a ‘disappearing middle’ between these two categories of consumers.

For example, surveys by Biotechnology Australia on consumer attitudes to GM foods are now indicating that approximately 50% would consume GM foods while 50% wouldn’t. Whereas a number of years ago there were strong views for and against GM, with a broad area in the middle who were uncommitted.

Our future

So what does this mean for us?

While there is no doubt that our scientific and technical capacity will be necessary into the future - it may not be sufficient. We will need to widen our thinking around the science.

Perceptions, responses and the like, are becoming more important - as is the rise of social science in our work. Risk communication in a shrinking world will become more and more important.

It is of interest to reflect on this for a moment - to reflect on what some have called ‘the decline of authority’. Once the

broader community trusted the advice of experts and governments - the ‘authority figures’. There seems, however, to be a growing level of distrust and scepticism. Surveys demonstrate consumers continue to turn to examples such as thalidomide, nuclear power (and Chernobyl) and, most recently, to the handling of BSE in the UK as issues where ‘experts’ have given advice that turned out to be wrong - or at least questionable. All of this contributes to a push for more inclusive, consultative and transparent regulatory decision-making.

There is a bright side - FSANZ is on a reasonably strong footing. Our public recognition rate in 1999 was 3% and this increased, in late 2003, to 67%. Our trust rate currently stands at of 80%. [ courtesy Biotechnology Australia ]

The next 18 months

One thing we can foresee - the next 18 months or so are going to be very busy.

We have a daunting agenda - health claims, fortification, food safety measures, and primary industry initiatives - and the list is growing.

Health claims, novel foods and fortification will shape future directions. Health claims will provide a platform and advertising will provide the vehicle for a new debate. New expectations will be created along with a new interest by consumers. For us, there will be a change of pace.

The challenges will bring a new attention to advertising and market creativity. National, high impact-advertising campaigns promoting health benefits of certain foods could see a new relationship develop between industry and government.

Running along side this will be our work on food safety programs, targeting vulnerable groups (including those in child care, hospitals and aged care facilities), as well as food safety plans for manufactured meats and for catering businesses.

Our work on primary production and processing standards will

continue with particular attention to seafood, poultry meat and dairy.

And, of course, we have the ongoing business as usual of our application and proposal work - which continues to increase.

These major issues will rely on more than the science - they will involve you all and major risk management and risk communication work.

And what of the food law itself - the standards?

As I mentioned earlier, our start in this area was characterised by prescription, icon - based food standards. ‘Recipes’ were a feature, although we stayed clear of quality-based approaches.

New requirements were imposed along the way - regulatory impact analysis became part of our core business. During the 90’s the recipe-based approach gave way to a new focus on outcomes. Prescription gave way to more general obligations and new responsibilities for industry.

While we are well down this track, the Code continues to evolve. Processing type requirements are being introduced. And these take the shape of food safety plans - some would characterise these as a means to and end, rather than a definitive ‘standard’ in themselves. At the same time a new emphasis is being given to pre market ‘approvals’- and we see this in requirements for GM foods, irradiated foods, novel foods and, in time, for some health claims.

While there are pre market ‘interventions’ on the one hand there is an attention to outcomes on the other. And such approaches do not always sit comfortably together.

Conclusion

In looking to the future we must keep an eye on where we’ve come from.

Change will continue to be a feature - and for that reason FSANZ will continue to position itself to ensure it is responsive,

and able to cope in a forward - looking and constructive way.

It is no secret that we all have a common interest. And this will continue into the future.

We will have to keep working on our shared interest in health outcomes, consumer awareness and industry growth. While the language of ‘partnership’ rolls off the tongue pretty easily - the challenge for us will be to make sure that the partnership works for government, consumers and industry alike.

Thank you.

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September 2004