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Issue #1649      July 30, 2014

Public food safety is important

Approaching the age of 80, I find one of the few political activities I’m physically able to do, is to sign petitions on all sorts of social justice issues. When I signed the petition to stop the closing of NSW Department of Health’s Food Testing Laboratory at Lidcombe, I was taken back over 45 years to when I applied to work as a part time laboratory assistant in the Division of Analytical Laboratories as the Forensic Analytical Science Services (FASS) were then called.

After being at home for ten years as a full-time mother, and needing to support my family with the financial expenses of three school aged children and a mortgage, I had applied for the job. The laboratory complex was close to home and the job was part time. I did not want to raise ‘latchkey kids’ and I wanted to be part of the school’s P&C and be part of my children’s school activities.

The laboratory complex had moved from crowded small premises in Macquarie Street, Sydney only six months previously and the people working there were proud of their new state-of-the-art facility. I worked in the food laboratory for many years and saw much of the great work done there by the analysts in safeguarding public health. The analysis of foreign matter in food products, the large scale surveys of salt and sugar content in baby foods, the mercury content, as well as other heavy metals, in fish following the Minamata disaster, the percentage of fruit juice content in fruit juice drinks, the amount of preservatives in processed foods, along with food complaints identified and brought to the laboratory by Food Inspectors (employed by local councils throughout NSW) - the list is endless.

The analysts also had to give expert advice where prosecutions under the Pure Food Act 1908, were brought before the court.

I was proud of the work that the NSW government did in looking after the public’s health. I wanted my children to grow up without being adversely affected by substandard preparation or questionable additives to food. Many health experts are questioning the long-term effects of putting corn syrup, a cheap additive, in a vast array of processed foods.

With many mothers needing to work to cope with the financial pressures of getting the basic necessities of life and time being at a premium, the temptation is great to use take away meals and precooked/processed foods with all the extra additives for preservation, taste enhancement, and visual attractiveness.

As food production becomes increasingly globalised, it is essential that an independent government body be responsible for the monitoring of how this food is produced and marketed to the consuming public (salamis and soft cheeses). As the cost of competition increases, cheaper alternatives and poorer quality ingredients will be used. For example cheap peanuts would be attractive to food processors. However cutting corners with storage could lead to the development of aflatoxins, and so monitoring by trained analysts is crucial to safeguard the health of the public by preventing companies from compromising processing standards.

The diversity of food available makes it very expensive to monitor the safety of all foods. Private analytical companies, which have to make a profit, are unlikely to do time consuming and complex analyses. Food production from the growing of crops with pesticides, meat production with the use of growth hormones and antibiotics, storage of staples with the use of mould inhibitors and preservatives, all can have serious long term effects on people’s health.

It is vital that an independent government body have the capabilities to run a large analytical laboratory that can; monitor all foods produced for public consumption; research and establish new analytical techniques to stay abreast of new methods of food production; and to work with other health organisations in protecting the overall health of the community.

Public health is too important an issue to be left to private companies which have to deal with the external pressures of the market (profits, shareholder support and maintaining market share). I find it impossible to understand this state government and how they can compromise something as important as food safety.

I want my children and grandchildren to grow up in a country where scientific skills can be used for the benefit of all: That our food is not only safe to eat, but beneficial to our health well into old age.

Next article – Restore funding: Peris

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