How the food industry ‘games’ food regulation

For those who are affected by food additives, the efforts of the food regulator Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) are largely irrelevant as presently conducted, and increasingly so with changes in food industry practice in response to consumer concerns.

 

There are two reasons. One is that FSANZ’s assessments for approval operate within a deliberately narrow range of what constitutes ‘safety’ and the second is their inability to address food industry ‘gaming’ of the Food Standards Code. The first issue was discussed at http://www.fedup.com.au/news/blog/how-useful-is-our-food-regulator-fsanz

 

The second issue is discussed here.

 

Gaming of the Food Standards Code by the food industry

 

The food industry has understood that 80% of consumers don’t want additives in their food and their response has been not to change the food but to change the labels on the food, the Clean Label Strategy.

 

Now lawyers are running multiple sold-out intensive workshops to help the food industry simplify their long ingredients list, leave ingredients off the label, refine whether an additive is “natural” or “not artificial”, redefine ‘nasties’ as an (undeclared) processing aid, use the 5% rule to advantage, find ways to not declare Genetically Modified ingredients and how to achieve a clean label without breaching the Australian Consumer Law.

 

It helps the food industry that there is a bureaucratic standoff between FSANZ and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC). If a consumer lodges a complaint with ACCC they can say that “it’s a label issue, talk to FSANZ”, who say in turn “that’s a consumer issue, talk to ACCC”...

 

The best current example is that of the flavour enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate, additive 621), which most consumers claim to be avoiding. FSANZ regulates six forms of glutamates and does not regulate the other 123 ways in which this additive is added to foods AS AN INGREDIENT, as a recent survey found. That means that FSANZ is concerned to regulate less than 5% of the ways in which this substance is added to foods. Is this really prioritising consumers’ right to know what is in their food? Should consumers really need to carry a list of 129 ways of hiding an additive under different names? Should the food industry be allowed to add regulated additives as ingredients without numbers? What logical difference can FSANZ discern between a chemical added as a white powder 621 and the same chemical added in an ingredient? These are questions that a review needs to address.

 

Another egregious example is that of the bread preservative 282, calcium (and other forms 280-283) of propionate, which again many consumers want to avoid. In this case food manufacturers have found a way to put in the additive as an ingredient called cultured dextrose (or cultured wheat, or cultured whey, or cultured anything) and so avoid showing the dreaded number. Even certified organic foods may now contain cultured dextrose. In this case a complaint to the ACCC was successful in one sense: the package no longer claims “no preservative 282” but the ingredients list still contains cultured dextrose which is chemically identical. The front of packet claims “no artificial preservatives”. Again, FSANZ regulates the white powder 282 but if a food manufacturer can find another form of the same chemical FSANZ declines to regulate it. Should consumers need a degree in food technology to understand what is in their food?

 

In the current Act, the 5% labelling loophole permits food manufacturers to not declare what is in an ingredient so long as that ingredient comprises less than 5% of the finished product. Therefore, for instance, a product with 4.9% oil need not declare that the oil contains the synthetic antioxidant BHA 320 butylated hydroxyanisole. The only way to find out what is in the ingredient is to ring the food manufacturer, who may or may not inform the consumer correctly, at their discretion. The EU manages its food supply without such a loophole, requiring manufacturers to declare what it in the food, period. When the Food Labelling Review (2011) was asked to address the 5% issue, the response was that 'it may not be feasible' to fit that information on the packet. Funny that the same multinational food companies can fit this information on the label in the EU and UK! Why has FSANZ persisted with this loophole which is being exploited by the food industry to fool consumers?

 

As a result of an industry leak, it has been shown that a major multinational food company has used flavours as vehicles to avoid the declaration of colours and other food additives such as preservatives and antioxidants, against the spirit if not the exact words of the Food Standards Code. FSANZ did circularise the food industry in 2009, at the prompting of the Network, to remind them of their obligations but the extent of compliance remains a mystery since there is no monitoring.

 

These brief points show that there is an arms race underway between FSANZ as a regulator and the billion dollar food industry, and that the first Objective under the Act, “the protection of public health and safety”, is losing. Evidence has been presented that FSANZ is also failing on the second and third Objectives which are the provision of adequate information relating to food to enable consumers to make informed choices and the prevention of misleading or deceptive conduct.

 

A referenced version of this section may be seen at http://www.fedup.com.au/information/information/references-for-articles-about-fsanz-2015 

There are further scientific references at http://www.fedup.com.au/information/information/scientific-references