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3-Food: Australian Consumer Association calls for food safety and labelling

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Genetic changes could threaten agriculture exports
Melissa Langerman
CANBERRA, March 10

Agricultural exports could be threatened if the federal government did 
not impose rigorous safeguards on gene technology and labelling of 
genetically modified products, the Australian Consumers Association 
warned today. The warning, by ACA policy manager Mara Bun, came at the 
start of a three day conference on the benefits and risks of genetically 
modified (GM) foods in Canberra. Some speakers - including scientists, 
food industry representatives and ethics experts - urged great caution on 
the use of GM, warning potential hazards were still poorly understood. 
But others stressed gene technology would increase crop production, 
reduce pest and disease threats to crops, reduce spoilage and reduce 
risks from use of existing pesticides.

Agriculture Minister Mark Vaile said GM had great potential benefits for 
Australia. "Managed properly, gene technology promises enormous gains for 
agriculture and our rural environment," Mr Vaile said. But Ms Bun said 
Australia risked damaging its export markets and high food quality image 
unless the regulatory system was watertight. "If we have the wrong 
regulatory system in place and the wrong culture in public accountability 
and if something goes wrong it could be catastrophic," she told AAP. 
Australia should also investigate export opportunities following the 
export to Europe of $26 million worth of Australian canola on the basis 
it was not genetically modified.

Ms Bun said the industry argument that detailed labelling was too hard 
was disproved by the fact that some companies were now promising detailed 
labelling or GM free products. But Australian Food and Grocery Council 
food specialist Lana Malero told AAP that GM that changed production of a 
food, but not the end product, would be hard to monitor. "From all the 
information we are getting from the scientists, increasingly it is a 
challenge for people to give any guarantees if the food is being produced 
using this technology," she said. She said consumers were being misled by 
scaremongering ahead of new regulations in May which will enforce 
labelling standards. Consumers could have absolute confidence in the 
products on shelves, she said. But the Australian Democrats called for 
Australia to follow the lead of three UK supermarkets which refused to 
stock genetically modified foods. "The regulatory regime in place is 
certainly not sufficient to protect the consumer interest," Democrats 
consumer affairs spokeswoman Natasha Stott Despoja said.

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