The year 2000 is ending with a major change in food regulation across Australia and New Zealand. A new Food Standards Code has been adopted for the country after six years of work. The method for putting into practice the changes is a valuable insight into how a governing body needs to go about introducing regulation.

The most obvious area in which consumers will see the new code working is in food labelling. Labels will now need to carry the percentage of the key or defining ingredient contained in the product as well as a panel of nutritional information which will incorporate the levels of saturated fat, sugar, total fat, protein, energy, carbohydrate and sodium. Labels will also be required to carry information and warnings over any ingredient to which a consumer may have an allergy. Producers have been given up to two years to implement the changes.

Regulation has also been eased for producers as many of the detailed compositional requirements for certain goods which were formerly quite complicated have been relaxed, with basic standards remaining for products such as ice cream, yoghurt and peanut butter.

While a number of surveys in Australia and New Zealand have shown an almost overwhelming public desire for change, the impetus for the new regulation comes from other sources, as Ian Lindenmayer, the managing director of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) explained to

“There was a view formed by all of the Australian Governments in the early 1990s that the existing food standards were out of date in terms of their scientific and clinical currency and also in terms of how they fitted with contemporary social, political and economic views about the role of regulation,” he said. “A good deal of the regulation had been there for decades with relatively little change though obviously there had been ad hoc modification and updating. The National Food Authority was formed as a predecessor to ANZFA, followed by a treaty between Australia and New Zealand as

New Zealand wanted there to be a single food standard for the two countries rather than the two existing, different standards.”

Following a meeting of The Council of Australian Governments, which features representation at both federal and state

“Our world is becoming an increasingly global and interactive one”

level, it was decided to adopt new regulatory standards. “Inappropriate regulation imposes costs upon industry and therefore
upon the consumer,” Mr Lindenmayer commented. “A fundamental review was needed in order to eliminate the unnecessary regulatory requirements and to apply the principal of minimum effective regulation. Concurrent with this was the evolution of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and an obligation on all member countries to ensure their regulatory systems were no more restrictive than could be justified by robust scientific analysis.

“There were therefore four main drivers for change: up-to-dateness, minimum effective regulation, harmonisation of Australia and New Zealand and compliance with WTO regulations. The first is primarily consumer-oriented, the second serves industry, and the other two help both.”

Mr Lindenmayer added that the tie-up between Australia and New Zealand had three benefits. “Firstly, it creates a uniform regulatory environment and facilitates trade across the Tasman. In doing so, the New Zealand market has increased from just over $4m to $23m, while the Australian market has grown to $23m from $19m. There are also regulatory operational efficiencies, as reviewing and developing food standards is not cheap and requires a fair degree of scientific research. It is therefore much cheaper to do it once rather than twice. Finally, our world is becoming an increasingly global and interactive one, and Australia and New Zealand are getting good practice at working in this way with other sovereign nations as good preparation for closer integration with countries in the region.”

The only adverse reaction to the provision of mandatory information panels has come from the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), primarily as they argue that much of this information is already provided on a voluntary basis and they believe that costs will increase for both industry, small businesses and state governments as a result. ANZFA denies this, and has introduced the two-year changeover period as this should mean that new labels can be produced as part of manufacturers’ normal production cycle. Systems have also been put in place to aid small businesses as they implement the changes. Mr Lindenmayer noted that AFGC are supportive of 85% of the new code and he added that many individual manufacturers have also supported it.

The changes to the compositional requirements on certain foods created problems with consumer groups while the development work was taking place. “In 1998-99 there was a strong backlash by the consumer movement, supported by public health organisations, over the deregulatory things we were doing in creating the new code,” Mr Lindenmayer recalled. “The old code in both Australia and New Zealand was highly prescriptive in terms of the composition of food, as old regulators said they knew what the composition of particular types of food should be and set down in considerable detail what the recipes should be. It was nothing to do with health and safety, it was just that regulators believed they knew best.

“We asked what the requirements delivered to society in terms of protection from fraud and deception as well as protection to public health.  In many cases the answer was nothing at all. Therefore we took out the things that weren’t helpful, but consumer groups were very fearful that doing that meant that industry would substitute less safe or less nutritious ingredients or cheap alternatives to what the consumer believed was in the product.” However, consumers’ desire for more accurate labelling means that these worries can be overridden, as

“Labels will now have to reflect what is going into products and so changes by industry to the consumers’ detriment cannot occur”

labels will now have to reflect what is going into products and so changes by industry to the consumers’ detriment cannot occur.

“We also took note of what was happening in Europe with the QUID system (Quantitative Ingredient Declaration, which came into effect in February, and is the mandatory requirement for virtually all classes of manufactured foods, the key, characterising or defining ingredient must be declared as a percentage of the total of the food). We thought this was a means of closing the loophole for deception which the consumer movement was very concerned about.”

There is currently nothing in the new code for the implementation of a health claims regime on food. ANZFA started a pilot study last year into the promotion of folate-rich foods to help prevent cases of spina bifada in babies and women thinking of having children were targeted with the message. “The folate pilot was intended to test the regulatory feasibility of a health claims regime. If we were to go into a health claims regime, we would need to see what measures would need to be taken to substantiate any claims, how we should approve claims, how we should control individual products securing permission to make claims, what other information might be needed for consumer understanding of claims and what monitoring and evaluation would be necessary.

“The test indicated a very high level of compliance with the rules of the pilot by industry, it showed it was associated with a significant increase in the awareness of the target group of the importance of folate in their diet. However, it was less clear that it had a positive impact on consumption of folate-rich food and it will be some considerable time before we see whether there has been a reduction in neural tube defect births.”

Mr Lindenmayer added that complaints about health claims suggested that some companies violate the letter of the law, while others imply benefits which cannot be proved.

“We currently allow health claims on a case-by-case basis and they need to be robustly substantiated. Long-term the very demanding task of substantiating claims makes this expensive, and without some capacity to recover the costs, there would be an unjustifiable diversion of regulatory costs away from things which are major health and safety issues into just the processing of a stream of applications so we are contemplating a no health claims regime.”

Labelling of GM foods is set to be introduced at the end of 2001, purely as an information service for consumers rather than as a health and safety issue. “No GM commodity can be used unless it has gone through a very demanding pre-market scrutiny and is approved prior to being used, which means we should identify it as a health problem before it gets into the food supply. Therefore it’s not to do with health and safety.”

Australia and New Zealand’s new regulations are the result of much painstaking work. The financial concerns of industry have been balanced against the needs of consumers as awareness of the relationship between diet and health increases, and while they seek to be an effective set of rules to govern food, their implementation has also been an excellent study of the work needed to bring such a set of rules into being.

By Hugh Westbrook, correspondent