Legislative Assembly for the ACT: 1998 Week 6 Hansard (2 September) . . Page.. 1730 ..
MS TUCKER (continuing):
I would agree with Mr Connolly's intentions with this Bill. Unfortunately, the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority has so far not taken a strong stand on labelling, so it is necessary to continue to pursue this legislation in the ACT.
The 10 Health Ministers which make up the Australia and New Zealand Food Authority met at the end of July this year and decided that genetically modified foods that are substantially different from their conventional counterparts in their properties such as taste or nutrition would have to be labelled. For example, a tomato which is genetically modified to taste sweeter or to contain more vitamins would have to be labelled. I understand that there are no such foods in this category currently being sold in Australia.
However, the Ministers did not agree to labelling of genetically modified foods that are what they call substantially equivalent to normal foods. For example, a genetically modified tomato that includes toxins to kill insects, or has been made virus resistant, or has been given antibiotic resistance, or has been made herbicide tolerant, would not be labelled because it may still taste and look the same as an ordinary tomato. The Ministers decided to consider this aspect of labelling again at their next meeting in December this year.
This outcome was very disappointing as the Ministers have avoided making a decision over genetically modified foodstuffs that are already starting to come into Australia. At the end of 1996 importation of genetically modified soybeans from the United States commenced. These beans, called "roundup ready soybeans", have been produced by the United States multinational Monsanto to be resistant to the company's Roundup herbicide. Weeds in conventional soybean crops can only be sprayed lightly so as not to affect the crop, whereas roundup ready soybeans can be sprayed regularly and indiscriminately. The roundup ready beans, therefore, have up to 200 times the herbicide residue found on normal beans.
Soybeans, in such forms as flour, oil, protein concentrate, lecithin and thickeners, are used in over 60 per cent of all processed foods, including bread, chocolate, cakes, margarine, meat substitutes, ice-cream and baby food. For example, tests have recently confirmed that two brands of baby food sold in Australia, Wyeth Infasoy Progress and Heinz High Protein cereal, contain genetically modified soybeans.
Roundup ready soybeans are only the first genetically engineered food to reach our shores. There are sure to be many more to follow as I understand that some 30 genetically modified crops are currently being grown in the United States. However, Mr Speaker, we would have no way of knowing whether we are eating any of these soybeans, or other genetically modified food, because of the totally inadequate labelling requirements in Australia.
In proposing this Bill, I am not asking the Assembly to make a judgment on whether genetic engineering of food is good or bad, because I do not think that the evidence either way is clear yet. However, due to the importance of this issue to public health, I think that all governments should be taking a precautionary approach and making every effort to keep consumers informed about the health implications of what they are eating. I think that consumers have a right to know what is in the food they buy so that they can make an informed choice.