The Canberra Times: Danielle Cronin: 15 Jun, 2011
Parliament is considering new food-labelling laws that would force food companies to disclose if their product contains palm oil or genetically modified material.
Tomorrow, the Senate Community Affairs Committee is to issue reports on two Bills.
A peak consumers' group has embraced the changes but the food industry argues existing regulations are good enough.
The first Bill - co-sponsored by Independent Senator Nick Xenophon and Greens leader Senator Bob Brown - deals with palm oil.
Palm oil is reportedly found in about 40 per cent of food products on supermarket shelves, but under current labelling laws, manufacturers can disguise that by declaring their product contains ''vegetable oil''.
Senator Xenophon has three concerns.
''Well, for starters, the oil palm is a fruit, not a vegetable,'' he told Parliament. ''Secondly, palm oil is high in saturated fat and low in polyunsaturated fat. And according to the Heart Foundation, biomedical research indicates that the consumption of palm oil increases the risk of heart disease.
''Thirdly, in South-East Asia alone, the equivalent of 300 soccer fields are deforested every hour for oil palm plantations, and each year more than 1000 orangutans die as a result of land clearing in this region.
''There's no question that the current labelling laws are inadequate and are misleading consumers.''
The Bill will make it compulsory for manufactures to declare if palm oil is in their product or used to produce the food.
The aim is to inform consumers and encourage the use of ''sustainable'' palm oil.
The second Bill co-sponsored by Xenophon and Greens Senator Rachel Siewert is designed to accurately label food containing genetically modified material.
Up to 70per cent of processed food contains genetically modified ingredients but ''almost none legally require labelling'', according to Siewert.
''Currently, labels only have to declare the presence of GM materials, but not if genetic engineering was used in the process used to create the product,'' she told Parliament.
''Highly refined sugars and oils derived from GM plants are not labelled leaving consumers little room to choose.
''Genes from bacteria, viruses, plants and animals are inserted into crops such as soybeans, canola, corn and cotton to grow commercial crops. These GM crops are processed into foods and sold in our stores.
''The full extent of the impact of GM on human and environmental health is not fully known but it is in these situations of uncertainty that precaution should be exercised.''
The Bill is designed to ''give both consumers and farmers the right to be free from genetically modified organisms''.
The National Farmers' Federation believes genetically modified crops are one of the technological advances that will help farmers compete in the domestic and international market.
The organisation backs efforts to improve food labelling, provided the laws do not impose unreasonable costs, are practical and do not harm trade.
''The NFF ... agrees that Australian consumers should be provided with clear information to enable them to make informed choices about the food they purchase and consume,'' the peak farming group said in a submission to the Senate inquiry.
''Indeed, we believe that Australian farmers should have every opportunity to capitalise on their reputation as being one of the world's best suppliers of clean, green and quality food ... [and] generate premiums for this reputation wherever possible.''
But the Australian Food and Grocery Council argues existing regulations are ''appropriate to ensure protection of public health and safety and adequate information to consumers for informed choice''.
''The Bill proposes an unprecedented, costly, and impractical approach to guard against, or label for, an occasional presence of components, at very low levels, with no public health implications, and of only passing interest to most consumers,'' the council said in its submission.
Consumer group Choice supports both Bills. Spokesman Christopher Zinn points to growing community concern about the use of palm oil on health and environmental fronts. ''Food labelling could assist consumer to easily identify those products containing palm oil by highlighting its presence in the ingredients list,'' Choice says.
''Third-party accreditation schemes with strict verification requirements and transparent processes could also be used to highlight products made from sustainably sourced palm oil.
''Choice believes food manufacturers should seek alternatives to palm oil and that it needn't be used in many cases ... However where palm oil is used, it should be sustainably sourced, and declared in the ingredients list.''