Overview of Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation November 2016 meeting

By Joe Lederman (Managing Principal, FoodLegal) and John Thisgaard (FoodLegal Consultant)

© Lawmedia Pty Ltd, December 2016

The meeting of the Ministerial Forum responsible for food policy in Australia and New Zealand is always a significant event.  In its last meeting for the year, it discussed some important topics including the labelling of added vegetable oils and sugars in food, the use of low-THC hemp in food, the Health Star Rating system, and more.  This article provides a useful summary of the matters discussed by at the meeting, their context, and what the next steps are.

The Australia New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (the Forum) had its last meeting for 2016 on 25 November 2016.  The Forum is made up of members representing the Australian and New Zealand governments.  It meets several times each year, and is responsible for formulating and directing food policy and the interpretation and enforcement of Australian and New Zealand food standards.

The Forum discussed a number of hot topics at its latest meeting.

1.    Added sugars and vegetable oils

The Forum considered recommendation 12 of the 2011 Labelling Logic: Review of Food Labelling Law and Policy report.  The recommendation provided:

“That where sugars, fats or vegetable oils are added as separate ingredients in a food, the terms ‘added sugars’ and ‘added fats’ and/or ‘added vegetable oils’ be used in the ingredient list as the generic term, followed by a bracketed list (e.g., added sugars (fructose, glucose syrup, honey), added fats (palm oil, milk fat) or added vegetable oils (sunflower oil, palm oil)).”

Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ), which is the body responsible for overseeing the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code (Food Standards Code), provided a technical evaluation of the proposed changes to labelling which has been in progress since December 2011.  FSANZ concluded that this is a complex issue and that there have been changes in dietary advice since the 2011 review.  Currently added fats and oils can be labelled generically (for example, palm oil can be labelled simply as “vegetable oil”), although there has been some uptake of voluntary labelling of added fats and oils.

In 2008, FSANZ rejected an application to amend the Food Standards Code to require mandatory labelling of palm oil.  The application was rejected as FSANZ believed that its motivations were purely environmental and did not have anything to do with food, which put it outside the administrative power vested in FSANZ by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand Act.

The Forum postponed implementation of recommendation 12, instead agreeing to further consider the potential implications in the following ways:

  • New Zealand will consider the naming of sources of fats and oils on labels
  • FSANZ will consult the Food Regulation Standing Committee (FRSC) to consider providing greater information about sugar on labels

No deadline or timeframe was put forward for this next step.

2.    Low-THC hemp as a food

In June 2018 FSANZ put forward a proposal to permit the sale of food derived from the seeds of low-THC hemp.  The proposal was initially supposed to be completed by late 2016, but has been pushed back to early 2017.  This is because FSANZ is awaiting completion of a study on the impacts the consumption of food containing low-THC hemp will have on roadside drug tests.

The Forum is still prepared to consider the proposal once the study is complete, which represents a significant departure from its previous position which was very cautious of the concept of food containing any form of hemp.  In January 2015, the Forum rejected a proposed variation to the Food Standards Code to allow the use of low-THC hemp in food, citing concerns that the public would be confused about the acceptability of cannabis.

3.    Vitamin D

The Forum accepted the FSANZ review of Application A1090 to permit the voluntary addition of vitamin D to breakfast cereal.  In July 2015, the Forum required FSANZ to review its initial support of the application.  Vitamin D fortification will only be allowed where the breakfast cereal meets the Nutrition Profiling Scoring Criterion.

4.    Synthetic foods

The Forum noted that the Food Standards Code should be responsive to novel synthetic foods (that is, synthetic foods that are new to the Australian and New Zealand diet).  FSANZ was asked to prepare a report on potential safety, nutritional and labelling issues that could arise.  This will likely be a significant topic of discussion at the next meeting of the Forum.

5.    Health Star Rating (HSR) system

The Forum renewed its support for the HSR system with any potential changes coming after the Forum considers the two-year HSR progress review.  The only specific alteration that was flagged at the meeting is a change to the Category 1D requirements for dairy substitute beverages.  Currently, such beverages fall into this category if they have a calcium content of at least 80 grams per 100 millilitres.  The Forum indicated that this could be changed to a content requirement of at least 100 grams per 100 millilitres. However, any change would not occur until after the completion of a five-year HSR progress review.

6.    Allergen labelling

The Forum decided not to intervene in current allergen labelling initiatives.  Currently, the Allergen Collaboration administered by FSANZ promotes voluntary allergen labelling initiatives by the food industry.  The presence of certain allergenic substances including milk, egg, crustacean, fish, some nuts and soy must be declared on the product label.

The Forum requested FSANZ to prepare a report to prepare a report on the uptake of voluntary labelling initiatives to be presented to the Forum within 12 months.

7.    Per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS)

PFAS may exist in some imported food packaging or cookware.  Sites may become contaminated due to the presence of materials containing PFAS.  Concerns have been raised about the impact of PFAS on human health and the environment.  FSANZ is currently preparing advice on guidance values for contaminated sites, and the Australian Federal Department of Health is receiving advice on the management of PFAS.  The Forum is not taking action on the matter of PFAS until this work is complete.

This is general information rather than legal advice and is current as of 13 Dec 2016. We therefore recommend you seek legal advice for your particular circumstances if you want to rely on advice or information to be a basis for any commercial decision-making by you or your business.