Australia: All transgenic food to be labelled
Australian Financial Review
Dec 18, 1998

All transgenic food to be labelled

By Cathy Bolt

The food industry has suffered a defeat in its bid for a smooth
introduction of transgenic foods in Australia after a ruling by health
ministers yesterday that will require all food containing genetically
modified material to be labelled.

The 6:4 majority decision by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards
Council was immediately branded a politically cheap option by the
Australian Food Council, which claimed it would deliver the most
restrictive labelling regime in the world for such products and could see
Australia challenged under World Trade Organisation rules.

"Even the Europeans haven't gone this far for the very reasons we implored
the ministers to
consider," said the council's executive director, Mr Mitch Hooke.

"It will be meaningless to consumers, unenforceable, impractical -- and
impose unnecessary costs."

But the food policy officer at the Australian Consumers' Association, Mr
Matt O'Neill, said the decision reflected consumers' basic right to know
how the food they ate was produced. Surveys showed more than 80 per cent
of consumers wanted full labelling.

"It's a clear message for food producers that consumers won't be force-fed
new food technology without being able to make a choice," he said.

The Food Standards Council moved last August to fill a vacuum in
Australian food laws
governing transgenic products by requiring compulsory labelling where such
foods were substantially different in taste, nutrition or use. The law is
to take effect next year.

But a decision has been deferred on the more controversial issue of
labelling where they are
substantially equivalent, for example, products which have ingredients
derived from soy bean or cotton plants genetically engineered for pest or
herbicide resistance but which are otherwise identical.

Under the majority decision yesterday -- the opponents of which included
the Federal
Government, New Zealand and Victoria -- compulsory labelling will be
required where the
manufacturer knows the food contains genetically modified material.

The Australia New Zealand Food Authority -- which also argued against
labelling of substantially equivalent foods -- has been asked to draft an
amendment to the Food Standards
Code to put the decision into effect.

But in another decision which continues to blur the issue, the ministers
also asked ANZFA to
develop a definition of genetically modified food.

Controversy over the transgenic foods now starting to reach consumers
after decades of
development has been building in Australia since late 1996, when imported
soy beans were the first food to arrive which might have contained
transgenic material.

Mr Hooke said there was little benefit to consumers in having the vast
majority of products within the next few years on supermarket shelves
labelled "may contain".