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Australian Food and Grocery Council Annual General Meeting and 8th Full Council Meeting, Intercontinental Hotel, Sydney, 1.15 pm, Thursday 16 September 1999: keynote address\n

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Ladies and gentlement, I thank your Chairman, Mr Enzo Allara, and the Board for inviting me here today to address the 8th Full Council meeting. And congratulations on the launch this morning of your "Food Science Bureau".

I am sure you will all be aware t here are currently a number of big issues in the broad area of food and food regulation on my radar screen at the moment. Some we are slowly working through and making some good progress and others, I anticipate, will be with us for quite a while yet.

Today I would like to take some time to discuss these issues with you and talk about areas of priority for your industry. I want to talk about genetically modified food, the Food Standards Review, the proposed Food Safety Standards, the Model Food Act, the Blair Review of food regulation and cost recovery. I would like to also briefly comment on the issues of tax reform and industrial relations.

Genetically Modified Food  

Genetically modified food is an increasingly topical issue of discussion in the community and media. The regulation and in particular the labelling of genetically modified foods is an issue that has certainly been keeping me busy as Dr. Wooldridge's Parliamentary Secretary and Chair of the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council (ANZFSC). I suspect it is a priority issue for your members.

I chaired a meeting of the Food Standards Council last December (1998) at which Health Ministers decided in favour of labelling substantially equivalent genetically modified foods.

The Food Standards Council has since reaffirmed this position at a meeting in August, arriving at the collegiate decision to extend labelling provisions to require all foods produced using gene technology to be labelled.

Health Ministers agreed to full labelling not on the basis of any recorded public health and safety concerns - because we have none - but on consumer information grounds. In making this decision Ministers acknowledge they are delivering on a demand from the community for more information about gene technology and its application in food production. Indeed, this labelling decision is the first the Ministerial Council has made on a social rather than public health and safety basis - and is indicative of community expectations to be informed about genetically modified food.

Ministers have been very deliberate in setting tight time frames and establishing an inter-governmental task force to work towards developing a draft standard with a view to meeting an October deadline. Ministers have already had one teleconference and are due to participate in another next week to work through the detail of what is being proposed.

I am aware ANZFA is working closely with Australian and New Zealand health authorities and other bodies to develop sound advice to Ministers. In developing the new standard the task force must pay due regard to a number of very real practical implications, such as, and among other things:

  • compliance costs to both industry and governments of implementing the standard;
  • means of testing foods for compl iance and enforcement of the new standard;
  • World Trade Organisation implications;
  • methods of labelling which are both practical and meaningful and which achieve the lowest possible compliance costs, and;
  • measures enabling manufacturers to establish the origin of food ingredients particularly in instances where food products are identified as possibly containing genetically modified ingredients.

The Regulation of Gene Technology

The Howard Government recognises the enormous potential of biotechnology not only to the community through its application in food production and medicines, but also to the Australian economy in the form of a developing industry and the wealth of intellectual property this technology represents.

We know many Australians already benefit from biotechnology produced insulin. Other potential medical applications of biotechnology, not yet available here in Australia, are gene therapy to replace abnormal genes or to insert a missing gene; and antibody treatments to help diagnose and treat diseases like cancer and diabetes.

Biotechnology on the farm is only limited by our imagination! We have the potential to grow oilseeds to increase monounsaturated oils in margarine and cooking oil and therefore help improve the health of our heart; we can increase the productivity of many crops such as wheat, barley and wine grapes while reducing the need for pesticides; use bacteria to clean up chemical residues on farms left by pesticides, and; grow seedless citrus fruit to meet consumer demand.

But before we can encourage biotechnology as an industry and harness the innovation it represents, we must first make sure it is appropriately regulated - insisting at all times public health and safety is the number one priority while also taking into account factors such as the environmental impact.

I am not here as an advocate of biotechnology, it is my job to ensure the technology is appropriately regulated to make certain we can benefit from its many and varied applications.

ANZFA is responsible specifically for determining the safety of foods produced using gene technology. Other Federal bodies are responsible for determining the safety of genetically modified commodities used in products other than food.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is responsible for drugs and medicines, the National Registration Authority is responsible for agricultural and veterinary chemicals, the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission assesses all industrial chemicals, and if the genetically modified product is to be imported or exported, it must meet the requirements of the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, and the Australian Customs Service.

A month ago (22 August 1999) Minister Wooldridge announced the establishment of the Interim Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (IOGTR) within the Therapeutic Goods Administration of the Department of Health and Aged Care.

The new regulator will strengthen the work being done by the different agencies to provide a rigorous, transparent and accountable decision-making system for the commercial release of genetically modified products. It will continue to seek advice from the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee, an expert committee that advises on the scientific safety aspects of GMOs and from Environment Australia for all environmental advice.

ANZFA will retain full responsibility for assessing and regulating food produced using gene technology under Standard A18, as we now know it. ANZFA's guidelines for the safety assessment of foods produced using gene technology are based on sound protocols and principles developed by the World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Using the guidelines and information supplied by the food biotechnology companies, experts - food toxicologists, molecular geneticists, biologists and nutritionists - employed by ANZFA assess the characteristics of the genetically modified commodities used in foods to determine if the foods have been changed in any way which would make them unsafe.

Gene technology is a contentious issue and the community deserves accurate, informative and meaningful information to enable them to make a choice in the market place. I recognise that governments have a role in providing this information and the Federal Government has made a considerable commitment in the last Budget to funding education on this very issue. But industry also has a role in this education process and I would obviously encourage you to progress any information campaign you may be preparing as quickly as possible in response to community concerns. The launch of the Food Science Bureau today is a commendable project and I am impressed with your selection of an eminent expert support panel.

I say this because I recognise that in the absence of good factual, and reliable information it is all too easy for the consuming public to begin to base decisions and opinions on myths and at times deliberately misleading information.

Food Standards Review  

While we all agree that genetically modified food is contentious, there is another issue about which I get a fair amount of mail, and that is meat pies.

When ANZFA set out to plan for the Food Standards Review it was anticipated that while most consumers and members of industry would support the general need to bring our food standards up to date and make them less prescriptive, there would be resistance t o change the standards for one or two particular food products. These products have turned out to be meat pies, jam and icecream.

Throughout this process I have noticed people often forget that the Food Standards Code is not the be all and end all to prot ect our food supply. The Code is, in fact, a set of regulations for manufacturers which sits below the Food Acts of each state and territory. The Code cannot be viewed in isolation from the Food Acts or, indeed, from the Trade Practices Act which now replaces most of the fair trading issues once covered by the Code.

The Code was developed in a previous era for a food supply which was very different to that now on today's supermarket shelves.

We may be attached to icon foods such as meat pies, but they are now well protected within the new meat standard, which also extends to the wide range of meat products we eat today. Government has no role in setting commodity standards or protecting recipes. Industry is the best at doing that and consumers will vote with their feet to avoid products that do not meet their taste, price range, nutritional requirements or need.

Unfortunately Labor has gone off the rails on this issue. They have today again called for more Government interference, and at the same time have engaged in scare-mongering against your industry's best interests. Talk of "dog offal pies" and "meat pies with no meat" are reckless statements.

ANZFA's principal objectives are to ensure that food is safe, that consumers are not misled, and to provide standards which do not inhibit innovation by industry or add unnecessarily to food costs.

Australia's food standards have been developed and added to in a piecemeal fashion. They contain inconsistencies, contradictions and many rigidities which restrict the capacity of the industry to respond with flexibility to consumer preferences.

Wherever possible, regulations for individual foods are being replaced by broad-ranging provisions that are consistent across all foods or a range of foods.

Fair trading laws, and State and Territory food laws, require that consumers are not deceived and that food is safe and suitable for human consumption. These provisions do not need to be repeated in the Food Standards Code.

ANZFA recently released a proposal to require the percentage labelling of key ingredients of food. A label giving the percentage of meat in a meat pie will offer increased flexibility for manufacturers to meet market demand and provide consumers with much more information about the pie than the current mandatory standard does.

ANZFA is not proposing to "lower" food standards. It is proposing to replace some prescriptive minimum content standards with general requirements for better information on food labels.

The Review will substantially reduce the complexity and prescriptiveness of Australia's food standards, particularly by removing much of the detailed specification of "recipes" to be followed for manufactured foods. Other than when these are needed to protect the health and safety of consumers, they are being removed as unjustifiable impediments to innovation in industry.

These changes are also assisting in bringing Australian food standards into line with our World Trade Organisation (WTO) obligations. WTO commitments preclude our setting standards which impose trade restrictions other than to protect public health and safety or more stringent than those which can be defended upon hard data and robust science. This will strengthen Australia's ability to argue for improved access in overseas export markets in the WTO and other international fora.

ANZFA is due to complete this comprehensive review of the Australian Food Standards Code by the end of this year, to allow the phased adoption in 2000-2001of a joint Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code.

ANZFA is bound to follow a process involving comprehensive analysis of the relevant scientific and technical data and two rounds of public consultation before recommending a new standard to the Food Standards Council.

I stress that this reform comes as a package-it is built on a foundation of sound science that will protect our food supply while allowing flexibility for manufacturers and consumer needs.

Industry cannot pick and choose the components they like best, because in a decade or two, we will be wondering why there are out-dated anomalies such as the meat pie standard as we snack on a low-fat, high fibre product at the football.

We are also hearing loud and clear from consumers that they strongly support improved nutritional and percentage labelling. I am sure that you recognise the importance of consumer views on this issue of improved labelling as it is ultimately they who buy your products.

Consumer involvement in the ANZFA process  

There has been recent debate from consumer organisations that ANZFA only listens to the view of industry.

One of the reasons that ANZFA is perceived as not taking the views of consumers is that consumer groups are refusing to take part in the ANZFA process. Out of 67 projects that ANZFA has invited the Australian Consumer Association to participate in, the ACA has only participated in three.

Rather the ACA has openly said that it will not take part in ANZFA's process and prefers to run a public relations campaign against the reforms. Much of what they are saying in the food debate is inaccurate and uninformed.

This disappoints me and I believe consumers deserve better. Currently they are only being encouraged to make individual comments to ANZFA rather than have the benefit of a consumer organisation to represent them.

Food Safety Standards  

I would also like to talk about Food Safety Standards and in doing so make the point that the medical data we have shows us that foodborne illness is occurring far too often in Australia. Although we have a very safe food supply by international standards, every day around 11,500 Australians still get sick with food poisoning.

This problem is costing our community - including the food industry, a major provider of the 20 billion meals we eat every year - far too much in human and economic terms.

A Regulatory Impact Statement on ANZFA's proposed food safety reforms, which I launched in May, showed that the nation's annual bill for foodborne illness is about $2.6 billion per annum (or $5 million per week).

As we all know, food poisoning is not an illness to be taken lightly. It can kill. The people who are most vulnerable are the elderly, children and those with suppressed immunity to infections.

The standards will switch the current approach of identifying and fixing problems after they occur to getting business to develop and implement a preventative approach. They will apply to all food businesses along the entire food supply chain.

To avoid duplication, the proposed food safety standards will recognise existing equivalent regulatory standards, such as for dairy and meat industries.

These reforms should have significant trade benefits for Australian producers and retail businesses as they are based on internationally recognised food safety principles and will replace the current outdated, overly prescriptive and inconsistent food hygiene regulations.

Criticisms of the proposed reforms have come from elements of the food service sector. ANZFA is continuing to explore ways to minimise the cost impost on businesses (particularly small business) of the reforms. ANZFA is also working with other agencies to make sure that the standards are as effective and efficient as possible.

The Primary Industry Ministerial Council and the Fisheries Ministerial Council have expressed support for the general policy approach to the Food Safety Standards for the primary industry sector.

The Model Food Act  

Work on the proposed Food Safety Standards is being carried out in conjunction with the Food Acts Review. All jurisdictions have agreed Food Law should apply to all stages of food production, from source to point of sale. Other sector specific legislation (eg Meat and Dairy Acts) will continue to apply and the Food Acts are likely to be used only in emergency situations or where other sector-specific legislation does not apply.

A draft Inter-governmental Agreement has been developed as part of the Food Act Review which addresses uniformity, a timeframe for implementation and a process for future amendments. The Inter-governmental Agreement will commit jurisdictions to implementin g uniform legislation but with adoption methods appropriate to each jurisdiction.

The Food Law will uniformly adopt and enact the new food safety standards and provide the legislative authority for matters related to the food safety standards such as notification requirements. It will ensure uniform offence provisions and consistent administration and enforcement of food law.

A draft Regulatory Impact Statement for the Food Law has been prepared and released for two rounds of public comment.

It is proposed that a package comprising the Food Law, the Food Law Inter-governmental Agreement, the Food Law Regulatory Impact Statement, and the Food Safety Standards, will go to Health Ministers for consideration later this year before being recommended for approval and adoption by the Council of Australian Governments in December.

Currently each State and Territory has its own food legislation contained within the Food Act or the Health Act (Western Australia). Differences in these Acts are causing problems in relation to the uniform interpretation and enforcement of the Food Standards Code . In addition some Acts are unable to accommodate changes in food law proposed as a result of the new uniform food safety standards and related initiatives.

In 1996 States and Territories agreed that the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) should co-ordinate a review with the aim of implementing nationally uniform Food Acts. The Food Acts Review is managed by ANZFA with direction from a review working group made up of State, Territory and New Zealand Health officials as well as industry, consumer and local government representatives.

The Food Acts Review released for public comment a discussion paper outlining the proposed content of the uniform Food Law in February 1998, and an exposure draft Food Bill in May 1999.

These Food Safety Standards and Food Acts Review are major components in ensuring the integrity of our food supply for both the domestic and export market, and I urge you to continue to support them.

Blair Review  

Further to these specific proposed changes the Commonwealth and state governments are in the process of developing a coordinated, cross portfolio, response to Bill Blair's review of food regulation generally in Australia. I can report that we are hopeful of being able to gain COAG agreement in December to a new approach to food regulation through a new Inter-governmental Agreement on Food Regulatory Reform. This agreement will give clarity and simplicity to food businesses and consumers alike, and commit all governments in Australia to promote national consistency in regulation and implementation.

Cost recovery  

As you will now appreciate, ANZFA has a huge task ahead of it undertaking and participating in these various areas of reform.

ANZFA is also commencing a period of highly labour intensive individual product assessment and approval processes. The first of these is the approval of genetically modified commodities, followed by food irradiation, and then applications under the health claims and novel foods standards if approved by the Ministerial Council.

Historically ANZFA has not been resourced to undertake this new kind of labour intensive workload. As things go, it would seem we will be seeing more case-by-case assessment standards in the future as industry becomes more innovative in meeting consumer demands.

In the last Budget the Government indicated it would be reviewing ANZFA's resourcing during the course of the year. We are currently in the process of addressing core funding shortfalls, with the Health portfolio having already provided an extra $1 million for ANZFA this financial year.

ANZFA was also relying on being able to cost recover from industry for certain prescribed activities. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority Amendment Bill 1999 was introduced into the Senate on 31 March 1999. The amendments will ensure that ANZFA's resources are prioritised and directed to assessing applications within an agreed work program focused on consumer protection.

Cost recovery for applications with a capturable commercial benefit outside the ANZFA work program will mean that Government funding can be used to give priority to work which will ensure consumer protection through protecting public health and safety and preventing misleading and deceptive practices. Consultation has taken place with stakeholders on cost recovery and regulations are now being developed.

ANZFA will still be legally bound to consider the same set of objectives for developing a standard regardless of whether or not a fee is charged. The cost recovery framework that ANZFA is proposing will not in any way reduce ANZFA's obligations to seek public comment and follow its open and transparent decision making process.

The amendments will allow ANZFA to tailor consultation processes and allocate more resources where there are significant concerns and to streamline processes for minor issues.

The Bill before Parliament allows specific objectives to be added to the Australia New Zealand Food Authority Act . The provision of adequate information to consumers to allow them to make informed choices about food is to be made one of the objectives of the Act and hence of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority. For the first time, the protection of public health and safety and the provision of adequate information to consumers will be enshrined as key objectives for all of ANZFA's work.

This change will mean that ANZFA will be required to consider the information needs of consumers in the carrying out of all its activities not just in the development of food standards as is currently the case.

The amendments give primacy in the development of food standards and codes of practice to the protection of public health and safety and preventing misleading or deceptive behaviour.

This set of amendments will allow ANZFA to be more responsive to consumer concerns about particular standards issues and to develop specific consultation arrangements for individual issues.

It is important for industry to understand that unless cost recovery provisions go through Parliament, there will be little capacity for ANZFA to proceed with a health claims regime, and there will be serious delays in a range of other initiatives which would also be of benefit to the food industry.

A user-charging regime will also impose a strong deterrent on those who wish to clog up the food regulatory system with "political agenda" applications not related to food safety.

I should be clear in making the point that we are not looking to cost recovery as a way to address ANZFA's funding shortfall. It is clear ANZFA's core funding is inadequate given its current workload, and the increasingly complex issues facing the food system at present. Cost recovery will serve as a means of funding prescribed non-core activities.

It is therefore important that the food industry support the cost recovery regime as it is in your interest to have the choice of flexibility and market advantage to expedite your applications or otherwise to wait your time in the queue.

Tax Reform  

On matters financial I should take the opportunity to move on to briefly discuss tax reform. In the lead-up to the 1998 election the Prime Minister released the Howard Government's blueprint for a fairer tax system. This reform proposal essentially comprised of the introduction of a broad-based goods and services tax coupled with reduced income tax threshold levels. The Government won the election and it is now a matter of history that we were able to get over 80 per cent of the original proposal through the Federal Parliament with the support of the Australian Democrats in the Senate.

1 July 2000 is a significant date on the tax reform calendar as this is when the new tax system is due to begin. On the ground the GST will be a more equitable tax than the current wholesale sales tax and will mean reduced costs to business, with production input costs being creditable and exports will be GST free - helping you to be internationally competitive.

In recognising problems some industry sectors may have during the implementation stage, the Government has appropriated $500 million to help with software and hardware upgrades. I am aware it has already been decided $130 million will go to various industry associations with the balance, $320 million, still available for direct assistance to individual businesses.

I expect the forthcoming announcements and decisions on Corporate Tax Reform arising from the Ralph report will be keenly received by your industry in the near future.

Workplace Relations  

Workplace relations reform has been a priority for the Coalition Parties for many years. Under Labor unemployment was not a priority and soared to a peak of 11.2%. We witnessed agreement making being controlled by third parties such as trade unions, employees and employers were restricted in the agreement outcomes, unions became distanced and aloof from workers, and the unfair dismissal system cost Australia jobs - breaking the confidence of employers to hire new staff.

The Howard Government's Workplace Relations legislation has allowed employees and employers to negotiate improved pay for improved productivity at the enterprise level. The Act also provides for a genuine award safety net for low paid workers and establishes the right to freedom of association. We will continue to reform the workplace as a matter of priority with a view to rewarding a fair day's work with a fair day's pay, make the system work better for the unemployed, and build a system that will magnify common interests between employers and employees - rather than taking the Labor Party path of class ideology and conflict.

Our approach is underpinned by a handful of principles with a firm basis in equity and a fair go. And the result is a jobs growth rate twice that of what Labor was ever able to achieve.


Today I have covered a lot of ground - more than I normally would - but feel it is important you are aware and well informed of the various reviews and reforms currently under way in the whole area of food regulation. As I have said, these are just some of the big issues on my radar screen at the moment and I would encourage you, through your Council, to become involved where necessary.

Undoubtedly the 21st Century will be the "century of healing". Both Dr. Wooldridge and I are unashamedly involved in pursuing a major reform agenda across the portfolio. Dr. Wooldridge has concentrated on the important Health Care agreements and funding with states, has changed the basis of private health insurance, and has set targets for Health and Aged Care in measurable outcomes. I am driving major reviews and changes in the areas of pharmaceutical and complementary medicines, and in food regulation.

I enjoy a good working relationship with your Chairman and Mr Mitch Hooke and the Council Secretariat. You are a very significant industry in Australia and one the Government is keen to see prosper. I am confident a streamlined food regulatory system coupled with a New Tax System will deliver to your industry an environment in which you are able to achieve real sustained growth.



jy  1999-09-21  15:11