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Intense Battle Over GE Food Labeling in Australia and New Zealand

GM Food Labeling Down Under
Environment News Service
1:45 p.m. Aug. 1, 2000 PDT

CANBERRA, Australia -- Bowing to overwhelming public pressure, health
ministers from Australia and New Zealand rejected lobbying by the food
industry and agreed to adopt a zero threshold standard for the
labeling of genetically modified (GM) foods.

In a concession to the food industry, food sold at restaurants and
cafes as well as many food additives and food processing aids will be
exempt from the labeling requirements.

The new standards will come into force in mid-2001. They were adopted
by the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Council (FSC), which
includes the health ministers from each Australian state and the heads
of the Australian and New Zealand governments.

The food industry is pleased with the exemptions but concerned about
the costs of labeling genetically engineered (GE) foods.

The executive director of the Australian Food and Grocery Council,
Mitch Hooke, said, "This is a decision the industry has been looking
for and consumers have been expecting. It should go a long way to
meeting the fundamental objective of providing consumers with
meaningful information upon which they can exercise their right to
choice," Hooke said.

Consumer and environmental groups consider the decision only a partial
win.

"With the zero threshold decision, ministers have ensured some GE
foods will be labeled but their decision excludes many ingredients
such as vegetable oils and enzymes used in cheese, baking, and
brewing," director of the GeneEthics Network, Bob Phelps, said.

The chairman of the Australian and New Zealand Food Standards Council,
Australian Senator Grant Tambling, said he is disappointed that the
decision "will require industry to test to determine whether DNA is
present in the areas of highly refined ingredients, processing aids,
food additives, and flavorings. The new regulations will impose a
financial cost on industry and this will be reflected in the cost of
food to consumers," Tambling warned.

Australian Consumer Association spokeswoman, Gail Kennedy, rejects the
suggestion that consumers' right to information should be traded off
against cost. "Cost should not be the excuse for forcing consumers to
swallow gene-modified foods. All the surveys have indicated consumers
want to know definitively what is and what is not gene modified," she
said.

In the days before the ministers' meeting, Hooke had described calls
by consumer groups for comprehensive labeling as "terrorist labeling."

"Some of the consumer advocates might do well to ask the consumers
that they purport to represent how much are they prepared to pay for a
labeling regime that is so draconian that it in fact becomes nonsense
labeling. It's almost terrorist labelling," Hooke told an Australian
current affairs program.

Strong lobbying by the food industry and the Australian Prime
Minister, John Howard, for a far weaker standard would have required
labeling only for foods that contained more than 1 percent genetically
modified content of each food ingredient.

With opinion polls showing 93 percent of Australians backing
comprehensive labeling, the Australian Consumers Association (ACA)
argued that the proposed 1 percent threshold would in fact allow up to
70 percent of foods on sale to remain unlabeled.

"Foods labeled 'GM free' should be just that -- free of all GM
ingredients and ingredients prepared using gene technology. Allowing
any GM component, even 1 percent, in any food and not revealing its
presence to the consumer is called lying," said ACA spokesperson, Gail
Kennedy.

While the Food Standards Council rejected the proposed 1 percent
threshold, the ministers did agree that a 1 percent threshold would
apply for the accidental contamination of non-GM product with GM
modified material, the standard that has been adopted, with
qualifications, by the European Union.

Prime Minister Howard's lobbying for a range of exemptions for food
processing aids, additives, and takeaway and restaurant food was
successful. The ministers decided that highly refined foods would be
exempt "where the effect of the refining process is to remove novel
DNA and/or protein."

The chair of the Organic Federation of Australia, Scott Kinnear, is
appalled by the exemptions. "Excluding additives, processing aids and
highly refined products is outrageous. People wish to know what is in
their food for many reasons including ethical, moral, safety and not
wishing to support global food control," he said.

Consumer groups are also alarmed that food bought at restaurants and
cafes will be unlabeled. "In Europe they are included, and almost one
third of meals are eaten here," Kennedy said, referring to the fact
that nearly one in three meals eaten in Australia and New Zealand are
eaten outside the home.

GeneEthics Network director, Bob Phelps, argues the industry got much
of what it wanted. "Howard's proposal was put up as the stalking
horse, and once it was rejected the ministers gave him the rest of
what he wanted," Phelps said.

While some European Union countries have banned some GM crops, the
Australian and New Zealand ministers approved Monsanto's Roundup Ready
soy, which is resistant to the company's herbicide Roundup, and the
Ingard cotton, which also uses a Monsanto licensed gene.

A further 16 genetically modified food crops are under consideration
for approval later this year. "It is likely that only a handful of
these will be labeled under the new labeling regime," Phelps said.

"The decision is very much a compromise and public pressure for truly
comprehensive labeling is still needed," he said.

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