‘Alarming’ alcohol lobby push to weaken public health regulation

‘Alarming’ alcohol lobby push to weaken public health regulation

The alcohol lobby is trying to water down the food regulator’s efforts to change Australians’ drinking habits, urging the federal government to shift it out of the Health Department and restrict it to product recalls and salmonella warnings.

In a submission to a government review of the law governing Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Alcohol Beverages Australia called for the regulator to be moved into the Agriculture portfolio, with scaled-back powers and functions, and a board shake-up to include more industry representatives.

The booze lobby is pushing for the regulator to be moved under Agriculture Minister David Littleproud’s portfolio. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

ABA last year lost its fight against the pregnancy warning label on alcohol bottles that FSANZ recommended to health ministers in its role policing food safety and labelling. FSANZ is now consulting on proposed energy labels on alcohol bottles disclosing their kilojoule content, which the ABA opposes.

The ABA submission said the industry was concerned about “the extension of FSANZ’s original mandate beyond ensuring food safety and preventing acute foodborne illnesses, to a role in responding to broader health policy such as the pursuit of consumer behavioural change”.

The regulator should not be tackling public health issues such as obesity, non-communicable disease and the consumption of alcohol, it said, and should instead focus on “preventing acute illness from contaminants and poor hygiene practice”.

“This should be achieved by amending section 18 to require that the regulatory measure relates directly to a food safety issue,” the submission said. “Broader policies to address longer-term chronic illnesses related to diet are already the responsibility of health agencies at state and federal level.”

The minister responsible for FSANZ, Richard Colbeck, said in a statement “the Morrison government acknowledges the vital role of FSANZ as a regulatory authority under the auspices of the Department of Health”, but the government would not commit to ensuring it remained there or retained public health functions.

“It has and will continue to offer vital oversight for Australian consumers,” the statement said.

Public Health Association of Australia chief executive Terry Slevin wrote to Agriculture Minister David Littleproud in August about the “alarming” proposal to move FSANZ to his portfolio, warning that watering down the regulator’s role would “jeopardise the health and vitality of the nation”.

“It should be noted the estimated cost of alcohol harm to Australia is $36 billion per year,” Mr Slevin wrote. “In Australia, nearly 6000 lives are lost every year and more than 144,000 people hospitalised, making alcohol use one of our nation’s greatest preventive health challenges. In addition, alcohol use is causally linked to over 200 disease and injury conditions.”

Alcohol manufacturers have until July 2023 to put the label on their products.

On September 13, Mr Littleproud responded: “Views of all stakeholders will be considered to inform any proposed changes to the FSANZ Act.”

“Strong and robust food standards underpin consumer confidence in the quality and safety of our food supply,” he wrote. “This system supports our agriculture sector to become a $100 billion sector by 2030 and provides jobs to thousands of Australians in rural and regional communities.”

The ABA’s submission also argues industry is under-represented on the FSANZ board, while public health representatives “dominate”.

Former FSANZ chief executive Mark Booth resigned in August while chair Robyn Kruk left the board in April when the government declined to reappoint her for a second term. That decision was made by the cabinet – which includes Health Minister Greg Hunt and Mr Littleproud but not Senator Colbeck.

Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff is pursuing Mr Hunt and Senator Colbeck in Senate estimates over the circumstances of their departures, asking in a written question on notice “specifically whether they were asked to leave or voluntarily stood down”.

The current legislative purpose of the FSANZ Act is “to ensure a high standard of public health protection throughout Australia and New Zealand”.

Public health advocates fear the mandatory labels stating “PREGNANCY WARNING: Alcohol can cause lifelong harm to your baby” may not be rolled out, if the industry succeeds in weakening FSANZ’s regulatory role.

Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education chief executive Caterina Giorgi said alcohol industry groups “have lobbied for two decades to try and prevent alcohol harm warnings to be on alcohol products”.

“Finally, when a decision has been made for that to happen, they’re now trying to water down the very standards that are there to protect the community.”

ABA chief executive Andrew Wilsmore said some alcohol products were already carrying the FSANZ warning, which they have until 2023 to roll out, and the group would not seek for the label to be scrapped.

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