November 8th, 2012

One of the key arguments by the food industry made during the recent Food Bill debate, and one reiterated globally by food companies fighting for less restrictive food labelling legislation, is that regulatory decisions around food safety issues should be “evidence based”. In the current contest over food colouring additives that is precisely what both Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) and the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC) have failed to do.

When confronted by a request from food safety journalist Wendyl Nissen for a voluntary reconsideration of the use of additives that are permitted here, but banned elsewhere, those arguing for the status quo have failed to do precisely that – provide evidence in support of their stance.

Aside from the obvious argument, that food safety authorities in the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, Canada, Russia and the European Union have imposed restrictions on these additives precisely because of the evidence against them. In the case of Carmoisine (E122) both the USFDA and the United Kingdom Food Standards Agency have changed their opinions on the additive following results from a study of food colouring effects on child health by Southhampton University.

Given that both of these authorities are popular references for FSANZ and local food producers in claiming the safety of their processes, the absence of evidence in the press statements from both FSANZ and NZFGC seems to be avoidance of evidence rather than using it for support.

This is particularly obvious in the case of FSANZ, a publicly funded authority that regularly claims a high science position when supporting its decisions. In this case, however, FSANZ spokesperson Lorraine Belanger sought refuge in the position of rationally destitute religious and political leaders by claims FSANZ “believes” all additives it has approved are safe.

Coming a matter of days after the the Pike River enquiry’s results are made public, is this institutional belief the same as the Labour Department’s belief that safety administration at Pike River was up to standard?

Not only is this a bad time for civil servants to be asserting their faith in self belief over evidence, the danger of such attitudes has never been more obvious to most people. NZFGC and its members should also take note of the culpability of the mine’s owners in the disaster at Pike River. Like the mining company, food producers have been warned by researchers that these additives are dangerous enough to be banned in a large number of markets. The least they can do is to offer evidence on which their decisions to continue using them are made, a piece of independent research that refutes the body of evidence on which the FDA, UK, Europe, Russia and Canada made their decisions.

Belief is simply not enough in matters of health, or in public respect for those companies involved.

The opinions of the writer are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the publisher.

One Response

  • Hi Keith, I am not sure of the genesis of this think-piece, but I suspect you may be referring to a NZ Herald story 26/10/12 which listed 18 additives which were supposedly “banned” in other countries plus the Herald’s attempt at a correction yesterday.
    Most the initial story as originally printed was completely false with none of additives being “banned in Norway” , “phased out in the UK” or banned anywhere at all for that matter. The impression left by both stories is that somehow New Zealand is out of step with the rest of the world on this, which is not the case. As an overall comment, all the colours listed in both stories are permitted by the EU (including the UK) making all the references to so-called bans in EU countries false too. Yes, the UK FSA is encouraging companies to reformulate on a voluntary basis and some firms are doing this while others are continuing use them and choosing to print required statements on packs.
    FSANZ tends to follows the European Union approach and differs from the United States with a few additives. In the Herald stories there were a few additives that haven’t been approved in the US, but the context is that in some cases no company has sought approval there. A couple of “bans” in the United States also date back to the 1970s but have since been overtaken by other science and again no company has sought new approval. Cyclamate is a good example. Approved and used extensively around the world it remains banned in the US dating back to a decision in the 1970s. The United States is ironically one of the biggest producers and exporters of Cyclamate today and I understand there is currently a new approval application in the pipeline. It will be interesting to see what the FDA decides.
    Your piece questions the response of FGC and yes we do champion an evidence-based approach, particularly using official food regulatory sources such as the FDA, EFSA, UK FSA and FSANZ. They are the ones who determine safety, not the FGC.
    Following the first list which contained over 55 factual errors on one page (that must be a new record for a compact format – and that’s just counting matters of fact not matters of debate like the weird and wonderful so-called side effects) I gave the newspaper a full corrected list with accompanying evidence from official sources amounting to a lengthy 11 pages. I did so politely because these sorts of mistakes unfortunately happen often in food reporting when journalists can often get caught repeating the many falsehoods that riddle the internet. After my complaint, the follow-up story which appeared yesterday chose not to include much of the evidence supplied the Food & Grocery Council at all which is disappointing, but journalists determine what information they want to report and use in their stories and I can’t control that. I happily share all this information with you if you would like to do a follow up.
    Finally, in your piece I am scratching my head to understand the reference “When confronted by a request from food safety journalist Wendyl Nissen” that we failed to answer her, but wonder if you mean FSANZ? We have never been approached by journalist Wendyl Nissen at anytime on any subject although I do follow her work as I believe she is a very engaging commentator and a powerful voice in encouraging New Zealanders to follow a more balanced diet.
    Kind regards

    Katherine Rich, CEO, New Zealand Food and Grocery Council

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