A Consultation Paper on Aspirations for the Food Regulatory System was released in November 2020 by consultants on behalf of the Food Regulation Standing Committee. The Paper is available here .
It is one of the interconnected projects that are part of the food regulation reform program initiated by the Australia New Zealand Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation in March 2020.
This project relates primarily to the intergovernmental Food Regulation Agreement (FRA) between the Australian government and state and territory governments available here and also refers to the Overarching Strategic Statement for the Food Regulatory System (OSS) agreed by Ministers in 2017, available here.
CFA’s key responses to the paper were:
Challenges and Opportunities
CFA suggested that the following should be added to those in the paper.
- To better meet the many and diverse needs of the numerous vulnerable and/or disadvantaged consumers, including those with disability.
- To ensure that attaining the OSS’s objectives of: protecting public health and safety; assisting consumers to make informed choices; preventing consumers from being misled; and supporting public health objectives, is not significantly reduced/compromised by any industry oriented objectives.
- To recognise the increased amount, sophistication and effectiveness (including via targeting of individual consumers) of commercial marketing and promotion of foods and the need for countervailing public policies and interventions.
- To recognise and address issues arising from the increased importance of imported food products and the use of non-traditional supply routes.
- To treat alcoholic beverages more fully as food products and better meet consumer and community expectations for the provision of information to facilitate informed consumer choice and reduce harmful levels of consumption.
- To better monitor, assess and regulate health claims for foods, including self-substantiation.
- To clarify and improve the increasingly important food-medicine interface.
- To recognise and respond effectively to the increased incidence of food related allergies and immune system disorders.
- To recognise that views on what is an “improvement in product quality” can differ greatly, assessment can be highly subjective, and priority should be given to consumer views.
- To increase the extent to which the food regulatory system supports health, safety and consumer protection and empowerment policies.
- To increase the effectiveness of food policies and regulation by making greater use of the information provided by behavioural economics on how consumers make decisions, choices, etc.
- To increase the collection and dissemination of data to facilitate monitoring of food system developments and the impacts of policies and regulations.
Objectives and scope of the food regulatory system
CFA agreed that the objectives outlined in the OSS should be retained and reflected in a revised FRA. However, CFA did not agree with the proposed reform foci and said:
1. There needs to be specific mention in a future FRA and OSS of the needs of vulnerable and/or disadvantaged consumers, including those with disability.
2. Industry self-regulation is not likely to produce the required public health and safety and consumer outcomes because of the high priority industry gives to commercial considerations. Also, effective self-regulation is much more difficult to achieve now due to increased: diversity amongst Australian and New Zealand food businesses; importance of foods from other countries; and use of non-traditional supply routes. Past examples of ineffective self-regulation approaches to achieving public policy objectives that have resulted in major delays to the introduction of effective legislated food regulation include: pregnancy warnings on alcoholic drinks; food marketing; and nutrient claims.
3. Any reforms must ensure that the food regulation system provides for, and achieves, high standards for all food sold in Australia in relation to health, safety, informed choice and protection from being misled.
4. There needs to be recognition in a future FRA and OSS of the importance of consumers being able to access information easily, as well as to understand it.
5. A more comprehensive approach is needed in a future FRA and OSS to managing issues that intersect with other regulators and regulatory systems e.g. the TGA regarding therapeutic goods and the ACCC regarding misleading/deceptive/unconscionable conduct, food fraud, safety, etc.
6. A future FRA needs to include and support the statement in the OSS that “Information, training and education play a critical role in achieving food safety” and to include the importance of these activities to achieve public health and consumer protection and empowerment objectives.
7. Risk assessments need to be independently confirmed.
CFA’s response also said:
The action “Better engage public health and consumer advocacy bodies to deliver key messages regarding consumer safety and public health” should include providing financial support for such bodies. This is because these bodies have extremely limited resources to undertake any delivery of key messages, or to participate in the greatly increased level of stakeholder consultation that will result from many of the suggested changes to the food regulation system.
The goals “Reorient the system from being focused on ‘food regulation’ to focus on achieving shared objectives (where regulation is one tool used to achieve the objectives)” and “Expand the range of tools available to monitor compliance and respond to non-compliance (coordinated, targeted and efficient)” should be modified to indicate that they are conditional on clear evidence that a non-regulatory approach will be the most effective.
Ian Jarratt, CFA’s representative on the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand’s Consumer and Public Health Dialogue.