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Food Regulatory System – Strategic Planning for 2023 – 2026

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Food Regulatory System – Strategic Planning for 2023 – 2026

This submission is made 3/08/2022 on behalf of the Food Intolerance Network, which consists of 18,584 current members (verify here https://www.facebook.com/groups/128458328536/members), mostly in Australia and New Zealand but with members in USA, UK, EU, Canada and several other countries and includes dietitians and other health professionals. The Network provides independent information about the effects of food on behaviour, health and learning in both children and adults through www.fedup.com.au which has had some 13.5 million visitors.

Responsibility for comments is taken by Howard Dengate BSc (Food Sci UNSW), PhD (Plant Sci LC), Cert Plant-based Nutrition (eCornell). The support of Network members is acknowledged.

Q1. Are the trends, issues, risks, and opportunities affecting the broader food system accurately captured in the Horizon Scan? If you answered no, which matters have not been captured? 

An immense amount of work has been put into producing this linked cloud of issues in food regulation, thank you. In particular, we applaud the attempts to incorporate climate change and unsustainable limits to food production into the looming era of food insecurity, with wars, migration and starvation.

An issue for consumers that needs to be made explicit as part of Great expectations: shift in consumer wants and needs is that consumers expect that their food will not cause negative health, learning and behavioural effects. Certain food additives are the principal problem according to consumer surveys (REF1). The second problem is the response by the food industry to hide some of these additives as ingredients and in other ways, with the unscientific acquiescence of regulators.

Taking these two issues in turn.

1. Expectation of truth in labelling & protection against food fraud

Here is the question: why do Australia and New Zealand

·         have highest gout levels in the world? (REF2)

·         have the highest adult asthma level in the world? (REF3)

·         have plummeting school scores (in maths, reading and science) over the last 18 years? (REF4)

The answer broadly is government regulation fails protect consumers as regulators work for the food industry, not for consumers and not for public health except within a narrow compass. The central issue is one of trust, as has been explored and referenced at length in previous submissions (REF1). 

The Expectation of truth... statement would more accurately reflect consumer reality if it said Expectation that food will not cause negative health effects due to ingredients or fraud.

This critical issue for consumers appears tangentially in several places but is minimised as a labelling issue while it is far more central. Referring to “labels” and “labelling” frames the issue from a regulatory point of view whereas as detailed surveys have shown (REF1), consumers are concerned about additives and other ingredients in their food, including those which are increasingly being hidden as processing aids. Current allergy warnings also fail because consumers do not connect, for instance, Contains sulphites with Contains sulphites that may trigger asthma.

To be specific, Horizons para 80 Expectation of truth in labelling... and para 79 Demand for healthy...food do not cover this issue. It is not a “limited packaging real estate” problem. Nor does para 62 Rise of unhealthy food... where the focus is on fat, sugar and chronic health conditions. In Horizon para 90 there is brief mention of food “effects that may be cumulative and/or interacting play out over the long-term, so will require evidence to be collected over time”. While a noble objective, we think this will be honoured in the breach given that current widely-used food additives are not subject to any useful level of scrutiny.

2. Lack of confidence in relation to full disclosure of ingredients to ensure consumers are not mislead

Why do current food regulators:

·         only regulate 8 of the 19 ways in which propionate preservatives can be added to food, leaving the rest hidden and so in unregulated amounts?

·         only regulate 12 of the 131 ways in which glutamate flavour enhancers can be added to food, leaving the rest hidden and so in unregulated amounts?

·         only regulate 8 of the 14 ways in which nitrate preservatives can be added to food, leaving the rest hidden and so in unregulated amounts?

·         increasingly allow additives to be hidden as processing aids?

·         bounce questions about these issues to consumer protection agencies like ACCC who then refer it back to FSANZ for instance?

The broad answer to these is that labelling has become a lawyers’ game as the food industry attempts to hide ingredients of concern to consumers in ever clever ways.

A consequence to Australia and NZ of ignoring this issue is that there is a growing disparity between trading bloc food regulations, with knock-on effects on trade, say between the EU that uses the precautionary principle and is responsive to emerging science and the slow clumsy regulation dominated by the food industry in Australia and New Zealand. Even India and USA have acted on glutamates and nitrates respectively, and for instance the EU has recently banned colouring titanium dioxide E171, but there is no action in Australia and NZ. These views have been explored and referenced at length in previous submissions (REF1, REF5).

Q2. To what extent are there activities underway within your organisation, to manage these issues and risks and to leverage these opportunities?

The Food Intolerance Network has been lobbying on these issues for over 30 years, painstakingly and without external funding contributing to the debate at every turn but to no effect at all. The issue is managed by volunteers helping people avoid particular additives as identified by science, particularly based on the food intolerance work of Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit.

Q3. What opportunities do you consider exist for future work or partnerships, for mutual benefit?

If the regulatory system can live up to their stated policies and objectives for consumers, then there will be change for the better. As a large consumer organisation, and as customers, we want a trusted approach to food policy and regulation that recognises the breadth of food integrity issues (safety in its broadest sense, food security, food sustainability, personal and community health and nutrition, competent enforcement of standards, etc). We have in the past urged a central core to manage our food affairs, rather than the present Byzantine and fragmented system. We have suggested a potential solution is to embrace the broader social responsibilities for public health and wellbeing, food security, sustainability and trade within a new structure of a National Food Authority / Australian Food Council, with legislative changes that support the public interest.

References

REF1 Aspirations for the food regulatory system 2021 https://www.fedup.com.au/information/fin-campaigns/aspirations-for-the-food-regulatory-system

REF2 Gout: New Zealand now has the highest prevalence of gout in the world, with Australia second. In the last 20 years, gout cases have risen up to 20% in Australia. The rise in gout corresponds to the approval of flavour enhancers 627, 631 and 635 by FSANZ in the mid-1990s and massive increase in use. When these additives were tested in 1974, a label warning was recommended that “people suffering from conditions such as gout which require the avoidance of purines should avoid these substances”. Food regulators ignored this warning.

https://www.fedup.com.au/news/blog/gout-shame-on-you-fsanz

REF3 Asthma: Australia has the highest asthma prevalence in the world for adults. For children, Australia and New Zealand are in the top 4 countries in the world. Research showed the prevalence of diagnosed asthma in Australian primary school children increased from 9.1% (1982) to 38.3% (1992) then decreased slightly to 31.0% (2002). Even the conservative WHO agrees that asthma prevalence is strongly linked to the levels of sulphite preservatives (220-228) and other nasty additives in our food supply. An Australian diet study found 66% of asthmatic children reacted to sulphite preservatives. Yet consumers do not know about this, even the National Asthma Council bizarrely doesn’t mention it. Nor does the current Sulphite warning label say why it is being warned about.

https://www.fedup.com.au/news/blog/asthma-shame-on-you-fsanz

REF4 Food colours: A massive British government-funded study found that artificial colours can 'reduce the ability to benefit from schooling' and that even 'normal, healthy children’ can be affected.  As a result, the European food standards agency made the following warning mandatory for artificially coloured foods in 2010 “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”. Australian school scores have plummeted globally (in maths, reading and science) over the last 18 years. New Zealand and Australian students now rank 27th and 29th of 79 countries for maths.

https://www.fedup.com.au/news/blog/food-colours-shame-on-you-fsanz

REF5 FSANZ Act Review discussion questions 2020 https://www.fedup.com.au/information/fin-campaigns/aspirations-for-the-food-regulatory-system