Freedom of Information from FSANZ

Since 1999, the Food Intolerance Network has asked the food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) repeatedly, both directly and through Federal and State Ministers for Health, for the scientific evidence upon which approval of food additives is based.

The response has been to be fobbed off in every case, usually in patronising terms that advise that proper scientific assessments have been carried out, so "don't you worry about that".

Therefore the Food Intolerance Network, on behalf of its thousands of members, commenced a formal Freedom of Information (FOI) process from FZANZ. The FOI request was aimed at

  • propionates (280-283), the common bread preservative recently extended to several other food classes, which has been proven to cause learning and behaviour problems in children; and
  • ribonucleotides (627, 631, 635), a new flavour enhancer in many savoury products and even butter, which has been reported to cause severe itchy skin rashes in many people.

The approval process for agricultural and veterinary chemicals includes a full publication of the evidence that was assessed in granting or otherwise approval for the particular chemical, crop and pest combination. This transparency is in marked contrast to that displayed by FSANZ, which regulates additions to products that we all eat every day of our lives but provides no public evidence.

Below you can see the exchange of correspondence as it develops. The letters are in a pdf file: warning, they will make your blood boil.

FIN: Original request 1st August 2003

FSANZ: Formal responses 13th August 2003 and 15th August 2003

FSANZ: Request for evidence that the request is "in the public interest" 4th September 2003

FIN: Evidence of the public interest 15th September 2003

FSANZ: Accepting public interest 29 September 2003

FSANZ: Referring to another agency for earlier papers 14 October 2003

FSANZ: Some 300 pages of general information covering all food additives and without any specific scientific evidence was provided 28 October 2003. Note that the Department of Health and Ageing, who oversee the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), who were responsible before ANZFA and FSANZ existed, has not had the FOI request formally transferred to them.

FIN: Assessment of first FSANZ FOI information and response to FSANZ 18 November 2003. Propionates appear to have last been reviewed in 1973, and nucleotides in 1974 and 1993. As FIN said, "It is hard to believe that science has not advanced in the 10-30 years since these various reviews were done".

FSANZ: Final response 27 November 2003 is "that these documents do not exist" and then, later in the letter "currently available toxicological data supports the safe use of propionic acid ….and ribonucleotides". Extraordinary!

FIN: What FIN has been asking for some years, and in this very FOI request, is to see the "currently available toxicological data" which FSANZ now claims both not to exist and to support the safe use of these additives! Kafka come home. FIN concluded 11 December 2003 that FSANZ has reviewed the Food Standards Code for propionates and ribonucleotides without considering any scientific evidence, in breach of the FSANZ Act, and that FSANZ continue to believe that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence of effects from these additives, in the face of numerous consumer reports of such effects.

FIN: Formal request to Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council under FOI for the data that FSANZ says does not exist 11 December 2003.

NHMRC: On 9 February 2004, NHMRC provided about 90 pages in five documents in response to the FIN FOI request. While the papers confirm, in passing, that the principles for evaluation in 1981 included that "all additives proposed for use shall have had adequate toxicological evaluation" there was not one line in the entire sheaf of papers which amounted to any form of evaluation. NHMRC themselves said that "the files provide no direct evidence relating to safety assessments made." The papers largely comprised lists of permitted additives and the purity standards for them. Ribonucleotides do not appear anywhere. Five files from the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), which might have held such information, had been destroyed in accordance with the Archives Act. NHMRC also examined formal NHMRC Session reports for 1974-1980 which "did not identify any scientific or safety assessment information relating to proprionic (sic) acid and its salts (280-283) or for ribonucleotides (627,631,635)." The following letter has been sent to State and Federal Ministers to alert them to this situation.

FIN: Letter to State and Federal Ministers alerting them to the absence of the required scientific data on 2 July 2004.

Responses in order


































You can view Minister’s responses

The States and Commonwealth have obviously worked together in making their various responses. My summary of their responses is:

  • “All new food additives undergo a rigorous safety assessment” BUT we have no evidence to support this for these two additives.
  • “Attention is given to all new data” BUT there is no data for these additives. An absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence.
  • “These are naturally occurring metabolites so there is no need to test them” BUT there are many such chemicals that affect people (eg Vitamin A, iron, ricin from castor oil) if used inappropriately.
  • “Evidence is anecdotal” BUT observation and anecdote is the very start of good science, not a dismissal.
  • “JECFA have evaluated these additives as safe” BUT without scientific evidence. What was their unlimited approval based upon? Check

This is what we are left with:  foodrash01

Last update 30 December 2005