FOOD Ministers in Australia and New Zealand have agreed to take urgent action to explore tougher labelling laws and initiatives to prevent human consumption of unpasteurised cow’s milk.
The issue sparked recent controversy after the death of a Victorian three-year-old before Christmas from drinking a product which was being sold as ‘bath milk’.
A statement out of the Australia and NZ Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation meeting in Auckland, NZ, today, chaired by federal Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, said it was “extremely concerned” about consumption of unpasteurised - raw - cow’s milk sold as ‘bath milk’.
Bath milk is a cosmetic product labelled ‘not for human consumption’.
“People who consume raw milk are at an increased risk of infection causing severe illness and potentially death,” the statement said.
“The Forum noted the current actions being taken; agreed that further urgent action is required; and that a national approach is required in Australia to prevent the consumption of raw cow’s milk.
“The Forum will ask the Legislative and Governance Forum on Consumer Affairs to facilitate the development of a joint public health, food safety and consumer law solution that will deliver a consistent approach across all Australian jurisdictions.
“A working group will be formalised and will initially look at urgent interim measures to protect public health.”
Industrial hemp off the table
The Forum also considered and rejected a controversial proposal to allow industrial hemp to be sold as a food product.
Several federal MP’s including Nationals MP Mark Coulton and Show Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon have recently demanded changes to the Food Standards Code administered by Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) to permit hemp sales for human consumption in Australia.
Independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie and Victorian independent MP Cathy McGowan have also pressured the federal government into legalising industrial hemp consumption in Australia, to create a potentially lucrative market for Australian farmers similar to those in other countries.
Mr Wilkie says industrial hemp - the non-drug, low tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) or pcychoactive version of cannabis - is an economically viable and environmentally responsible product that’s also highly nutritious.
This week, Mr Fitzgibbon said that in 2012, in response to application A1039 to legalise Low THC Industrial Hemp as food, FSANZ recommended industrial hemp be approved as a food source.
“Yet, State and Territory politicians and their officials are still arguing the toss,” he said.
“There seems to be a lack of information and a misunderstanding of the differences between the high THC Marijuana and Industrial Hemp which is inhibiting the discussion on lifting the ban on the production of Industrial Hemp seeds as a food source in Australia.”
A statement from today’s Forum said FSANZ had reviewed its decision and re-affirmed its support of the variation to the Code.
“The Forum noted that FSANZ found that foods derived from the seeds of low THC hemp do not present any safety concerns as food, and that concerns regarding the impact on police THC drug testing fall beyond the remit of FSANZ,” it said.
“Several concerns were raised by some Forum members, including law enforcement issues, particularly from a policing perspective in relation to roadside drug testing, cannabidiol levels as well as the marketing of hemp in food may send a confused message to consumers about the acceptability and safety of Cannabis.
“The Forum agreed that further work would be undertaken promptly to consider law enforcement, roadside drug testing and marketing concerns in consultation with relevant Ministers.”
Government 'spineless' on hemp: Wilkie
Mr Wilkie said the decision by the government to continue stalling on the legalisation of industrial hemp for human consumption was “spineless”.
“The fact is this is a lucrative and safe crop for human consumption - not something you can get high on and legal in just about every other country,” he said.
“Instead of educating the community, the government prefers to pander to naivety, some weird ideological bent and scaremongering by the police.”
But Mr Coulton said the door wasn’t completely closed on gaining permission to allow hemp to be sold as a food product in future.
He said if an application was made by a group of farmers, rather than an individual, it may produce a different result.
Mr Coulton said industrial hemp can still be grown and its fibre used in various products and seed sold for stockfeed but it can’t be sold as food.
“This is not the death knell but it is a set-back,” he said.
“There will still be people who want to trial industrial hemp and work out exactly how they can grow it.”
Tasmanian Health Minister Michael Ferguson said the decision was “a missed opportunity to remove an unnecessary prohibition on the use of low-THC hemp in food products”.
But he said Tasmania was encouraged the Forum had agreed to continue to work on the issue.
"We have long advocated for the use of low-THC hemp in food, and have worked hard to lobby our Federal and State counterparts for support, and will continue to do so,” he said.
Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister Jeremy Rockliff said he was very disappointed by the setback but would continue to advocate for the industry.
"We will continue to lobby the jurisdictions who voted against this, to resolve their concerns and get this back on the agenda as soon as possible," Mr Rockliff said.
"There is huge potential for our industrial hemp industry, especially through the enabling of an Australasian market, and we will be exploring all of our options."
Health Star rating system working
The Forum also looked at the progress of the Health Star Rating System (HSR) following an information campaign and website that was launched on December 6 last year.
“The Forum welcomed the news that approximately 200 products displaying the HSR label are now available on supermarket shelves across Australia,” the statement said.
“The second wave of an information campaign will be launched in Australia soon.
“The Forum agreed to greater collaboration between jurisdictions to ensure the marketing of the Health Star Rating is conducted in concert with broader public health promotion by jurisdictions.
“The Forum noted that New Zealand is making substantial progress in implementing the HSR system in New Zealand, with HSR already on some products and there is expected to be significant uptake in the second half of 2015.”