Want to know what’s in your food? Tough luck

Feature Story - 6 December, 2011
Around two years ago, the federal government set up an expert panel to make recommendations to improve Australia’s food labelling laws. They needn’t have bothered. The public’s call for comprehensive labelling and testing of all genetically modified ingredients fell on deaf ears. While the panel’s recommendations weren’t as strong as we need, the government snubbed them anyway. Once again, Australians are being denied the fundamental right to know what’s in our food.

On 1 December, the government responded to the recommendations made for changes to Australia’s labelling laws. During the labelling review there was a record number of public submissions, which demanded better GM labelling. It followed growing evidence of GM ingredients contaminating our food supply without us knowing. One high profile case was the exposé that GM ingredients were found in a popular baby formula. Following the revelations, the manufacturer – Pfizer – shrugged its shoulders, claiming the GM contamination was an ‘accident’ and therefore didn’t require labelling by law.

What recommendations?

Greenpeace called for greater monitoring and evaluation of GM and the panel agreed, recommending that products found to be ‘accidentally’ contaminated with GM should undergo a period of monitoring to ensure there is no repetition.

‘Nope,’ said the government, ‘too expensive.’

Testing and monitoring has been one of the key issues of concern. The panel recommended that Australian laboratories ‘observe world’s best protocols’ to monitor GM. Yet, while the government ‘agreed in principal,’ it stipulated that no money would be given to undertake the upgrade.

Other recommendations were flatly denied. The advice that food and ingredients processed by new technologies (ie GM) should be labelled for 30 years was ignored. As was the recommendation that GM should be labelled on menus and food displays. The latter means that even though GM wheat is just around the corner, food outlets like bakeries won’t be forced to label your GM pie. Then you may wash it down with a GM contaminated beer at your local.

At least we had one victory

While Greenpeace and the public were calling for stronger GM labelling laws, the biotech industry groups were lobbying to weaken the current laws. The huge public profile of this issue ensured the powerful biotech industry didn’t get its way. So while we didn’t step forward, we avoided going backwards.

Our future, our choice

The issue of closing the GM labelling loopholes is becoming even more urgent as Australia is careering down the path of becoming the first nation in the world to commercialise GM wheat. It is currently being trialled and may be on our shelves as early as 2015. This will add to the GM canola that is already contaminating Australia’s food supply. All the while, the health impacts of consuming GM remain unknown.

It is a major concern that we are being denied the right to choose whether or not we eat GM. While the government is failing its responsibility, some major food companies are responding to consumer concern.

Last week, Australia’s largest bakery chain – Bakers Delight – pledged to keep its products free of GM wheat after receiving a flurry of requests to do so. While this was great news, it remains poor public policy to rely on the good sense of retailers to protect our right to know.

With GM wheat being trialled, and unreliable labelling laws, we’re at risk of eating unsafe GM bread without knowing it. Keeping up the pressure on the government is more vital now than ever.

TAKE ACTION: Write to the government and say you won’t swallow GM bread

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