Australian Consensus Council Says Label Biotech Foods

By Bob Burton

CANBERRA, Australia, March 12, 1999 (ENS) - Fourteen people specifically selected for their lack of knowledge about genetic engineering have delivered a rebuff to supporters of the new technology.

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Senator Margaret Reid (Photo courtesy government of Australia)
After hearing two days of evidence from a wide range of industry, consumer and environmental groups, the panel delivered its report to the president of the Australian Senate, Senator Margaret Reid.

The report urged the Australian government to adopt comprehensive labelling of genetically modified food, increase public participation in the regulation of the sector and take a more precautionary approach.

The consensus conference, the first in Australia, was hosted by the Australian Museum. Consensus conferences have been developed in Europe as a means of developing community input into government decision making on topical issues. The panel, selected to match the demographics of the broad community, determines the questions, calls evidence and cross-examines a wide range of leaders in the debate.

While the panel had little familiarity with the issue and little experience in public policy, they quickly focused on questions of the benefits and risks, whether corporations and government regulatory authorities could be trusted and the ability of members of the public to gain access to information.

"Is it true that 13 Monsanto staff now work for the Food and Drug Administration in the US?" one panel member asked. "No, you have got it all wrong," Dr. Bill Blowes, techical director for Monsanto Australia said. "Those 13 people came from the FDA to work for Monsanto. Now I don't know whether that reassures you or not." It did not.

Blowes told the panel that, "In Monsanto there have been some hard times. We are not the flavour of the month right now, if you hadn't noticed."

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Flask containing genetically engineered plant (Photo courtesy University of New South Wales)
In its report the panel expressed its concern about the ownership of food resources being concentrated in "a handful of multinational corporations."

Dr. Geoffrey Annison, scientific and technical director of the Australian Food and Grocery Council, told the panel that labelling for genetically engineered food content should not be mandatory for food manufacturers as consumers would be provided with information if they asked.

Panel member, Rod Poulton, was unimpressed. "A month ago I wrote to four manufacturers asking whether their products contained genetically engineered food products. I haven't got an answer from any of them. Not one," he said.

In December, Australian and New Zealand Health Ministers voted 6-4 to require all genetically modified products that were "substantially different" from natural equivalents to be labelled.

Subsequently, industry lobbyists have been pressing for regulation of genetically modified food to be shifted from the responsibility of the Health Department to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

It is a proposal which horrifies the Australian Consumers Association (ACA). The policy and public affairs officer for the ACA, Mara Bun, told the panel that such a move would downgrade the emphasis on health and lead to trade concerns dominating government considerations. The panel specifically recommended against the change.

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Logo expressing public resistance to genetically engineered foods (Photo courtesy Australian Gene Ethics Network)
Industry representatives emphasised the need for public trust in the regulatory authorities. However, associate professor Peter Willis from the University of Auckland challenged the independence of the Australian and New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA). ANZFA is the agency which regulates genetically engineered foodstuffs.

Wills told the panel that recently ANZFA accidentally sent out a batch of internal e-mails discussing "in the most deprecating terms" how they "were going to respond to people like us ... 'you know we haven't got time to bother with this.'" It was, he said "ANZFA with its pants down."

Nic Tydens, the public affairs manager for Monsanto Australia, agreed the process for the conference was good but expressed concern about the conference timeframe. "A lot of government regulatory authorities around the world have spent many years working on this, and it is obviously something that can't be just addressed by a lay panel in a couple of days discussions," Tyden told ENS.

Panel member Michael Field dismissed this. "We had plenty of time and information," he said.

"You tell us what you want to do and we'll do it," Monsanto's Bill Blowes told the panel. But when panelists read out the report's recommendation urging comprehensive labelling, Blowes was not applauding.