Food standards body avoids threat of regulatory capture

By Stephen Easton

February 5, 2016

The federal government has decided not to proceed with changes to the legislation behind Food Standards Australia New Zealand that would have left it open to regulatory capture by food industry representatives.

The opposition has supported most of a package of amendments proposed by the government in October, except for modifications to the rules about appointments to the FSANZ board. The bill passed this week, sans the controversial provisions.

The changes would have removed the requirement for one member of the board to be chosen by the National Health and Medical Research Council, and allowed the Minister for Health much wider discretion in choosing 11 other members.

In theory, the minister would have been able to pick more food industry representatives than before, on the basis of their academic or career background.

The Public Health Association of Australia made the same point as Labor in a submission to the Senate’s Community Affairs Committee last year, so chief executive Michael Moore is pleased that the government took that part of the bill off the table.

“When legislation like this passes, it must be set up for the long term,” Moore told The Mandarin. “And it has to be set up in a way that can’t be manipulated to increase industry representation and reduce public health representation.”

The PHAA said the bill as proposed initially would have allowed the minister to appoint a minimum of just one member from each of the consumer rights, science and public health areas, and up to four from the industry.

The association also argued the minister could do this without consulting the Forum on Food Regulation —  a group of ministers from states, territories and New Zealand — until after the decision was made, and could have conceivably appointed even more industry representatives, if they picked people who happened to fit into other categories as well:

“The science nominee also could come from an industry position, EG a food technologist in a food company. Science generically defined may not reflect that range of science matters before the Board and if the nominated Board member with a science background is from the food industry, it creates the public impression of food industry bias, thus undermining the authoritative role of the FSANZ board and its deliberations.”

Shadow assistant health minister Stephen Jones said this week that in the worst-case scenario, FSANZ could have ended up with seven of 12 board members having links to the food industry.

The NHMRC appointee is vital to maintaining “expertise relating to conduct of trials, scientific rigour, the quality of evidence, and a level of independence and objectivity” on the FSANZ board, the PHAA argued. And it said public health and independent scientists were far more relevant to the regulator’s work than people from the industry it oversees:

“Such people are the ‘bread and butter’ of the board and should be increased, not decreased … Public and commercial confidence in the food regulatory processes depends on the board being able to make, and being perceived to be able to make, objective, evidence-based decisions.”

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