Food Labelling and People with Special Needs: A question of rights.
|Common Pollutants - In Food|
Food Labelling and People with Special Needs: A question of rights.
By Dorothy M. Bowes*
Labelling of food is a contentious issue due to conflicting ideas about which information should be given and the amount of space available on food labels. Industry sees labels as advertisements so advertising takes up most of the space with essential information usually appearing in small print. Industry claims some information does not have to be divulged as it is privileged and covered by Intellectual Property Rights. However, there are groups in the population that have special dietary needs. Such people require full ingredient listing, information about sources of substances, or processes such as gene technology that may introduce unexpected substances into a food. This information is vital if they are to maintain good health and reasonable quality of life.
Some good examples of special needs groups are those with food allergy or food sensitivity; malabsorption syndromes such as Coeliac disease, lactose intolerance; or people with metabolic disorders such as diabetes. Some examples of specific information required on labels is as follows:
nutrient content e.g. sugar content that is essential information for diabetics, or fat content that is essential information for those with heart disease;
ingredient listing eg wheat, milk, egg, peanut - substances that people with allergy or malabsorption problems such as Coeliac disease, lactase enzyme deficiency need to avoid;
additives that by law have to be included on the label e.g. sulphur dioxide, tartrazine, citric acid, benzoates
While processed foods can contain hidden sources of ingredients that may be a problem to particular special needs groups, processes of production such as genetic engineering, or irradiation, may cause problems because of substances produced that can result in adverse reactions. This can be overcome by preparing food at home using only fresh produce. However, when food staples are produced using any form of gene technology, there are very real dangers facing those with special food needs.
Food sensitivity has become a problem in the last thirty years or so for a variety of reasons including the commercialisation of the food supply. People no longer grow their own food, preferring instead to purchase fast food or processed foods from the supermarket. Food is a mega-billion dollar a year international industry and for this to be financially successful food must be packed and transported over vast distances. In order to achieve this and have food products that are not damaged at the point of sale, many processes are involved that can result in the degradation of the food supply. Once food is processed there is then a need for preservatives and other additives. As food can be denatured during processing it is necessary to replace lost vitamins and minerals in an effort to restore nutritional value, but some additives are only included for cosmetic purposes and are unnecessary.
There are many labelling practices that are deceptive for those with special food needs and some examples of this are:
- labelling claims of no preservative added. This does not necessarily mean the product is preservative free, it may only mean that the end manufacturer has not added preservative. Some food can be manufactured from reconstituted fruit pulp or dried fruit already containing preservative;
- residues of gluten that remain in some food additives such as modified starches, or glucose syrup sourced from gluten bearing grains. While some with Coeliac Disease may tolerate this as a once only feed, they will not be able to sustain eating foods containing trace amounts of gluten. If a Coeliac sufferer does not know to look for these additives they will become ill and not know the source of their problems.
- The life of a person with food allergy may be compromised by trace amounts of their specific allergens in a processed food product e.g. peanut. Some other potential substances that may impact on health are enzymes, genetic material and the proteins it produces.
We don't necessarily need large amounts of substances to cause chronic ill health or trigger life-threatening reactions. There are many food additives that cause serious, sometimes life-threatening reactions to people with food allergy or food sensitivity. Some good examples of this are the sulphur additives 220 - 228. Other additives that can cause serious reactions are MSG, benzoates, citric acid and the yellow colouring tartrazine. These are only added to foods in small amounts and are required to be labelled, which then gives people the option of avoiding them.
Most people with severe allergy or food sensitivity do not purchase processed foods, they need to be very specific about what is in the food they eat as 'hidden' sources can affect them badly. Instead, these people usually purchase fresh whole foods and do their own cooking. Until now this has been a safe option.
Gene technology is about to change all of that. What you see may not be what you are accustomed to getting. There may now be hidden sources of allergens in fresh produce that was once avoided by purchasing fresh whole foods. For those with food allergy this can be especially dangerous as gene technology is producing substances never before encountered in nature. Genetically modified foods may contain pieces of DNA, antibiotic resistance genes, enzymes, small proteins or protein like substances that are capable of triggering allergy or allergy-like reactions. It is for this reason that labelling of foods produced by gene technology must be introduced and honesty in labelling covered by food
It is very important for consumers to have adequate information about the food they purchase. In spite of this, industry is resisting consumer pressure to label foods produced using gene technology.
There are many arguments to support the labelling of food that has been genetically modified in some way. The safety of genetically modified foods has not been proven, and there is:
no history of use - safe or otherwise;
no data supporting safe use;
no acknowledgment of the limitations of toxicology testing;
no acknowledgment of the incomplete understanding of some systems of the human body;
The credibility of such science without studies to support safety is questionable. We don't know if artificially introduced characteristics or unpredictable side-effects can occur and be passed on to subsequent generations, nor do we know what the long term effect of genetically modified foods is on the health of those who eat them. One can simply assume that the world population IS the study. If this is the case, it is a bad study - it has no bioethics committee overseeing it, no study design, no controls, no medical supervision, no monitoring of population health and - no results.
It is the policy of the FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) that food should be safe, nutritious and sustainable, yet we do not have either, adequate studies on genetically modified foods, or labelling, to make a safe choice. This is unfair as food is basic to our survival - we need food to maintain life.
People with food allergy or food chemical sensitivity have a high level of need for 'safe' food. Their health rights must always be protected and they must have a right to obtain food of their choice. Foods that are genetically modified in any way must be clearly labelled - including the source of the gene - this is a safety issue.
The Right to safe food
There are eight international consumer rights promoted by Consumers International, these need to be observed.
- The Right to Satisfaction of Basic Needs: to have access to basic, essential goods and services, adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.
- The Right to Safety: to be protected against products, production processes and services which are hazardous to health or life.
- The Right to be Informed: to be given the facts needed to make an informed choice and to be protected against dishonest or misleading advertising or labelling.
- The Right to Choose: to be able to select from a range of products and services offered at competitive prices with an assurance of satisfactory quality.
- The Right to be Heard: to have consumer interests represented in the making and execution of government policy, and in the development of products and services.
- The Right to Redress: to receive fair settlement of just claims, including compensation for misrepresentation, shoddy goods or unsatisfactory services.
- The Right to Consumer Education: to acquire knowledge and skills needed to make informed, connfident choices about goods and services, while being aware of basic consumer rights and responsibilities and how to act on them.
- The Right to a Healthy Environment: to live and work in an environment which is non-threatening to the well being of present and future generations.
Labelling of foods produced using gene technology is not only essential it is our right. Should FSANZ support the food industry and not introduce a standard that requires genetically engineered foods to be labelled it is failing in its primary legal responsibility to protect public health and safety. Failure to label genetically modified food can also be seen as government not honouring its human rights responsibilities under international charters Australia has signed e.g. the Ottawa Charter which embodies consumer rights. Comprehensive and honest labelling is a question of human rights.
Further information can be found on the world wide web at the
FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand)website FSANZ website
Gene Ethics Network website
Link to Union for Concerned Scientists Union for Concerned Scientists Website
Another useful link for people looking for info on food campaigns is Pure Foods Website Information
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Last Updated (Tuesday, 17 November 2009 04:33)