By: Julie Eady
More and more consumers are deciding everyday that it makes sense to avoid certain food additives in the foods they choose to buy. Knowing that certain food additives are linked to health problems and yet still permitted legally in our foods, you would think it would be an easy task to just read the labels and find safe products which don't contain the suspect additives - right??
Wrong. Unfortunately, labelling of food additives is just another area where the Australian food regulator, Food Standards Australia New Zealand ( FSANZ) is letting the Australian consumer down.
The labels on food products in this country don't always tell the full story. There are several loopholes in our labelling system that can frustrate the attempts of the most dedicated consumer to make informed choices about what they eat.
FSANZ implemented new food-labelling legislation that came into effect in December 2002. These changes to the labelling laws improved the system in some regards by giving more information to the consumer at a glance. The nutritional information panel was improved, and some changes were made in relation to manufacturers' requirements to detail ingredients.
The changes still did not go far enough, however, and there remain numerous inadequacies with the current laws. These loopholes exist because of industry pressure, which is driven by profit, and hinders consumers' rights to full knowledge about what is in the food we eat.
Numbers or Names
Under current legislation, manufacturers now have the choice of listing additives by either their number or their name. This means consumers have to be familiar with both the numbers and names to be able to decipher labels. It would have been a simple matter to legislate that manufacturers list both on their labels, but the manufacturers won out on this one. Manufacturers like to have the choice of which one to use as market research shows that consumers can be put off by too many chemical names.
For example, preservative 385 may be less confronting on your tinned crab meat than calcium disodium ethylene-diaminetetracetate, and flavour enhancer 635 sounds a lot more appetising in your packet soup than disodium 5 ribonucleotides.
The 5% Loophole
When amending the labelling laws in 2002, FSANZ had the opportunity to bring in legislation to oblige manufacturers to list all the ingredients in their products, no matter how small the quantity, but they didn't. Once again, the pressure from the food manufacturers won out over the rights and protection of consumers' interest.
Under the laws at the moment there's what is known as the 5% loophole. This gaping hole in the legislation means that manufacturers can get away with not listing additives if they are present in an ingredient that comprises 5% or less of the product.
Antioxidants in vegetable oil are the most common example of this. Many products have vegetable oil as an ingredient, and the oil will also contain antioxidants. Some of these antioxidants (such as 310, 319 or 320) are banned in other countries and associated with adverse health impacts, but these antioxidants aren't listed if the amount of vegetable oil in the product is less than 5% of its weight. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is another additive which many people wish to avoid because it causes so many adverse effects in so many people. However, additives like this are often legally concealed in ingredients like "beef booster" or "chicken flavour" under this labelling loophole.
Often, suspect additives aren't declared on labels under the protection of this loophole. Manufacturers can list compound ingredients such as margarine and breadcrumbs, and not list what is in those ingredients if they make up less than 5% of the final product. These ingredients often contain suspect antioxidants, colours and preservatives, but this will not be declared on the label.
Prior to December 2002, the 5% loophole was the 10% loophole. Why FSANZ bothered to change the law from 10% to 5%, rather than just get rid of the loophole altogether, is incomprehensible from a consumer's point of view.
Despite the well recognised adverse effect of some additives on health, FSANZ don't entertain the notion of warnings on foods. Many preservatives, especially the sulphites and nitrites, are well known to be associated with asthma attacks, and yet these are added widely to fresh and processed foods with no warnings. These preservatives are sometimes added to fresh meat, especially mince and sausages, and even to fresh fish, but the consumer has no entitlement to a warning under the current laws.
There are also many additives that are specifically banned in foods intended for infants and young children because of their proven adverse health impacts. This, in effect, just keeps them out of infant formula and baby food, yet FSANZ is quite happy for these same additives to be widely used in foods developed and marketed fairly and squarely at older children.
For some reason it's deemed perfectly safe to feed these additives to children over one, yet they are prohibited and considered dangerous in foods for children under one. A warning on these foods that they contained additives not recommended for consumption by young children would no doubt have a dramatic effect on the sales of such foods. These include some two-minute-noodle snacks, chips, rice crackers, most sausages, frankfurts and savoury biscuits.
Despite introducing much stricter nutritional labelling, FSANZ still resists any move towards labelling of suspected carcinogenic additives in food. (After all, if it's approved, it's safe according to FSANZ.) Food labels tell us how much salt, sugar, fat and carbohydrates are in 100 grams of every product, but they don't mention the presence of potential carcinogens. If warnings declaring the presence of any known or suspected carcinogenic additives were mandatory, I am sure that consumers would vote loudly with their shopping dollars and avoid these products in droves.
To add your voice to a campaign for better labelling of food additives in Australia go to the Additive Alert website at www.additivealert.com.au/fsanzpetition.php and fill out the petition to FSANZ. A letter on your behalf will be automatically mailed to the regulator calling for tightening of our labelling laws so that we, as consumers, can safely choose the best foods for our family.
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