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Dr Shiv Chopra, former scientific advisor at Health Canada, recently toured Australia.
Dr Shiv Chopra, former scientific advisor at Health Canada, recently toured Australia.
Who is our food regulator really serving?

He was here to talk how our regulators are failing us when it comes to food safety and how to remedy the situation.

A few weeks ago, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on food retailer ALDI’s decision to ban six red and yellow food additives linked to behavioural abnormalities in children. The additives are Tartrazine (102), Quinoline Yellow (104), Sunset Yellow (110), Carmoisine (122), Ponceau Red (124) and Allura Red (129). Names more suited for the end of a paint brush than a spoon.

ALDI’s decision was based on findings from a University of Southampton study published in 2007. The study concluded that the effects of these additives on some children’s development could be as detrimental as lead.

The question is where’s our food regulator? While authorities in the UK and other European countries are moving to formally ban many of these food colourings, our regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), is sitting on its hands ensconced in silence.

ALDI’s group managing director, Michael Kloeters, said the company decided not to wait for legislation eliminating these kinds of additives. If FSANZ’s track record is anything to go by, companies like ALDI and Australian consumers would be waiting a long time. This is despite calls from health groups. Last year, more than 100 childhood health, education and dietary experts signed an open letter to FSANZ accusing it of neglecting its responsibility to protect children’s health.

So, what’s the reason for FSANZ’s inaction on something as important as children’s health?

Dr Chopra believes the answer is that FSANZ has become too close to industry. Unlike most other regulators, FSANZ is also required to have regard to trade issues in its safety assessments – although this is only meant to be a minor consideration.

A great example of FSANZ giving priority to trade issues over public health is its approval for human consumption of genetically engineered alpha-amylase corn. Manufactured by biotech company Syngenta, the corn is the first GE crop specifically designed for use in bioethanol fuel production. It was never intended for human consumption. South Africa has rejected the corn due to health concerns, while the European regulators believe that there is insufficient evidence that the corn is safe.

Despite this, in 2007 FSANZ made Australia the first country in the world to approvethe corn. It later admitted that its approval of the corn was a cost-saving exercise in the event that US supplies of this corn co-mingled with corn entering Australia for human consumption.

It’s about time our food regulator was held to account.

Related links

» Take action: ask for comprehensive labelling and safety assessment law for GE food.
» Article: "Supermarket bans suspect food colourings", Sydney Morning Herald (11 June 2009).
» Dr Shiv Chopra's website

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