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Community Affairs Legislation Committee
Food Standards Australia New Zealand

Food Standards Australia New Zealand


Senator RICE: I want to ask some questions about baby formula and about the nano-hydroxyapatite that I understand has been found in baby formula in some circumstances. Is it correct that until May 2017 you had a page on your website that stated that nano-hydroxyapatite was not permitted in baby formula?

Mr Booth : There's quite a long story in terms of hydroxyapatite.

Senator RICE: If you could say it in five minutes.

Mr Booth : Essentially, we did initially put out advice that that was not permitted under the Food Standards Code. However, we very quickly realised, after doing some further checks with the codex chemicals area, that there are a number of synonyms for that particular chemical, or a number of names. It's used under a number of different names. We very quickly realised that the name hydroxyapatite was a synonym for other chemicals which were permitted, so it was actually permitted. So it was a slight error on our part to say initially that it wasn't all the time. It was.

Senator RICE: Now it is.

Mr Booth : It always has been.

Senator RICE: Because the same chemicals were permitted?

Mr Booth : Yes, exactly. It was a synonym, so it was just a human error.

Senator RICE: Okay. So you've reversed what was on the website?

Mr Booth : Yes, we just corrected that one.

Senator RICE: Okay. Is it your view now, related to that, that substances that haven't been intentionally added to baby formula aren't subject to the provisions of part 2.9.1 of the Food Standards Code?

Mr Booth : Can I just get this correct: you're saying—

Senator RICE: That, if there's a chemical that happens to be there that has not been intentionally added, it's not subject to the provisions of part 2.9.1 of the Food Standards Code.

Mr Booth : I'll ask my colleague Dr Crerar to comment in a second, but essentially where we were going with this was that there were some claims that hydroxyapatite was deliberately added. There was no real substantive evidence to actually say that that was the case. Also, the other issue is that is a naturally occurring compound within infant formula, so you would expect to find it there anyway. So that was the basis on which we provided our advice that there were no issues around this and the baby formula was safe to use.

Senator RICE: So, because—

Mr Booth : It is naturally occurring.

Senator RICE: Because it is naturally occurring—infant formula isn't a natural product—

Mr Booth : No, it's not, but the compound is within it at the nano level in terms of the milk. It has naturally occurring nanoparticles within it, so it can occur naturally.

Senator RICE: So it wasn't intentionally added, so you're saying that it's not subject to the provisions?

Mr Booth : There was nothing to actually investigate, as it were, because it wasn't intentionally added.

Senator RICE: So it was there but it wasn't naturally added. Is that what you're saying?

Mr Booth : That's correct.

Senator RICE: And therefore it isn't subject to the provisions of part 2.9.1 of the Food Standards Code?

Mr Booth : Yes.

Senator RICE: And was this view based on legal advice to this effect?

Mr Booth : The view?

Senator RICE: That it's not subject to the provisions of part 2.9.1.

Mr Booth : That was FSANZ's opinion in terms of the work that we undertook.

Senator RICE: Was it based on legal advice?

Mr Booth : We would not normally get formal legal advice on an issue like that. This is a technical scientific issue, and we base our work on the science and the weight of evidence. In this case, it was very clear that the weight of evidence was in line with the proposals we were doing, so we wouldn't get a legal—

Senator RICE: You didn't get legal advice, but you had technical and scientific advice?

Mr Booth : Absolutely. FSANZ is a technical, scientific organisation.

Senator RICE: Is that technical and scientific advice on the public record?

Mr Booth : We have put up on our website a number of different responses to the issue around nanoparticles generally. We also did a couple of reports, I think one in 2014 and one in 2016, on nanotechnology.

Senator RICE: I'm not aware of exactly what is on the website, but, if there is technical or scientific advice that is not on the website, would you be able to provide that on notice?

Mr Booth : Absolutely.

Senator RICE: Is it correct that the members of the Scientific Nanotechnology Advisory Group agreed that it couldn't be determined whether the nano-hydroxyapatite was intentionally added or not?

Mr Booth : The members of the group—there were three different meetings held, and overall the consensus was that infant formula was safe. There were various discussions, as there often are in these kinds of advisory groups, about the weight of evidence and about what evidence came in and that kind of work. But, overall, the consensus was that—

Senator RICE: That it was safe.

Mr Booth : it was safe, and it was agreed.

Senator RICE: But is it true that they couldn't agree as to whether—

Mr Booth : No, I don't think it's fair to say that. I think there was agreement. You have to remember that there were a number of different meetings held, and they came to their opinions, gave us their advice, which, as I say, in general, concurred with our advice, and we used that as one input into our decision-making process.

Senator RICE: On the issue as to whether it was intentionally added or not, basically what you're saying is that, in order to not be subject to the provisions of the food code, something has to be intentionally added? If it's seen to be natural, it's not then subject to the provisions of 2.9.1 of the food code?

Mr Booth : I think in general food has a history of safe use. We look at food where there is something new happening within the food code. So, if there is an intentionally added new nanoparticle in any food, then that would come through to us.

Senator RICE: But, if it's not intentionally added, you don't have to assess it?

Mr Booth : No, it wouldn't come to us.

Dr Crerar : If I could add that the fact that nanoparticles were detected does not in and of itself mean that there's a safety concern. The issue with nanoparticles is, if they confer some sort of technological function that we think is novel, then we will look at them. On this occasion, we did not believe there was a food and safety risk in the infant formula products, by virtue of the presence of naturally occurring nanomaterials. In other words, we do not believe it was engineered through nanotechnology and it did not confer any novel properties and therefore we did not consider it unsafe.

Senator RICE: So therefore you consider it to be safe?

Dr Crerar : That's right.

Senator RICE: Thank you.

Senator GRIFF: As you would be aware, there have been significant concerns in Europe about the herbicide glyphosate. In particular, the EU parliament on 18 January formed a special committee to look into the authorisation procedures for this pesticide. Information on your website indicates that the acceptable daily intake is 0.3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, and that is based on a study on rats in 1985. Is that correct?

Dr Crerar : I will have to take that on notice.

Senator GRIFF: You should know the answer to that question!

Dr Crerar : I don't believe that it's changed.

Senator GRIFF: How old were you then?

Dr Crerar : I don't believe that it's changed recently—I'll put it that way.

Senator GRIFF: Do you have a copy of that study, once you find out if that study is the correct study?

Dr Crerar : We would've looked at that study at some stage. I'm not sure if we have a copy in our records. We could certainly track it down.

Senator GRIFF: My question is, as a result of a study that is 30 years old, is that the best data that you have to support the setting of an ADI of 0.3 milligrams per kilogram for humans?

Dr Crerar : When we look at health based guidance values, which an ADI is, there are a number of what we call health based guidance values that say, basically. this is the amount of a substance that a person can consume every day of his or her life and it would be safe. When we look at that, the body of evidence around that is always changing. The fact that an ADI is still set on an a very old study doesn't mean there hasn't been new evidence and there haven't been new studies undertaken and that they haven't been put into the body of evidence to look at the health risks. Several agencies, including the European Food Safety Agency and the Joint Expert Committee On Food Additives, have looked at glyphosate in recent years and the body of evidence and considered that there's still not a safety risk in terms of how it's used under appropriate, good agricultural practice.

Senator GRIFF: So you don't have any plans like the EU to have a look again or re-evaluate?

Dr Crerar : We are not the pesticides authority. We don't look at use. That is the responsibility of the APVMA. I know they are looking at the uses of glyphosate. They are reviewing those uses. You'd have to refer those questions to APVMA.

Senator GRIFF: The 2017 National Residue Survey showed that the maximum levels of glyphosate were exceeded in samples of chickpeas and oats. Is that of concern to you?

Dr Crerar : I can't comment on what it means, in terms of the specific values, but I wouldn't think that, based on those commodities not being a large part of someone's diet—when we look at chemicals and the levels we find in our surveys of chemicals, it's a whole diet assessment of what people would usually have as a diet—I wouldn't expect that to be a problem in the context of an overall diet.

Senator GRIFF: Are there ongoing programs to monitor residues in crops?

Dr Crerar : Through the NRS, and we look at residues through our Australian total diet survey.

Senator GRIFF: Is that publicly available?

Dr Crerar : Yes.

Senator GRIFF: Can you provide a copy or provide us some information in relation to that.

Dr Crerar : Yes.

Senator GRIFF: In October last year, France banned the use of another herbicide—I'm going to try and pronounce this—glufosinate, which is currently used in Australia. They banned it due to the potential for reprotoxic effects. Is any reassessment of that product being undertaken in Australia?

Dr Crerar : Again, that is the responsibility of the APVMA under their chemicals review program.

CHAIR: On that, because I am interested, do you undertake regular literature reviews of the status of a chemical like glyphosate? My understanding of the science is that it's one of the safest agricultural chemicals going around.

Dr Crerar : Yes, we do in the context of when international authorities look at those chemicals, which, as I said, they have in recent years. We will review the evidence and the literature around it, not to contest it, but to understand more fully what they've looked at and what the current evidence is.

CHAIR: At what point? Is that a constant process? Do you have a backlog of reviews and are constantly looking at that as new data comes out? Do you wait until a new study is done and then review a particular level within foods?

Dr Crerar : It can be a range of things. It can be as the result of a new study that comes out in literature, but mostly it's from talking to our networks of other regulators and authorities and having that knowledge of what they're doing. We're a small agency, so we don't always have the resources to review everything, and we rely on our networks and relationships with those other international authorities.

CHAIR: Do you take into account when another international authority may ban a particular product on the basis of political considerations or public outrage as opposed to scientific evidence?

Mr Booth : I think it's fair to say, as Dr Crerar says, we kind of keep a watching brief on a host of different areas, but, in general, our focus is as a food standard setter on safety. As the Dr Crerar says, if new evidence comes up around safety and different levels, then we'll certainly look at it, yes.

CHAIR: But my point is: if Europe bans a particular chemical basically for political reasons, we wouldn't automatically take that into account. We would look at the science, I would hope.

Mr Booth : That's absolutely right—yes, the science. As I said before, we focus very much on the science, and it's science led.

CHAIR: Thank you very much.