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Jul 9, 2015

Food-labelling debate swarmed by phony glutards and anti-halal whiners

There is so much that needs to be said about food labelling in Australia. But, as usual, inanity prevails.

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This week, the Australian chapter of an independent health research group published its study on food products marked “gluten free”. The George Institute for Global Health survey of more than 3000 products was led by Dr Jason Wu, whose message to consumers was clear in an organisational press release marked “Don’t Believe the Hype”.

Using the government-endorsed health star rating (HSR) as a measure, researchers, whose work can be read in in the British Journal of Nutrition, compared the nutritional value of foods labelled “gluten free” against their non-GF product equivalents. In news that will surprise no one with both a gut and a mind of reasonable utility, GF products scored no extra stars than their impure counterparts and, in many cases, scored lower. Junk food, it seems, is junk food, and the GF label is, in most cases, just a tip-of-the-hat to the unhealthy Western appetite for both snacks and quasi-science.

There are, said researchers, an afflicted minority who must avoid the consumption of gluten to maintain long-term health and avoid short-term discomfort. Coeliac disease, the condition whose symptoms can be managed through avoidance of the protein, has a national prevalence estimated at between 1 in 500 to 1 in 100, and a case has been made for screening in the Australian Medical Journal. But, says Wu, there is no need in most cases for avoidance of the stuff whose lack expressed on labels is little more than a “health halo” that promises but does not deliver a range of benefits. “Many people need gluten-free food, but there is a growing group who are only trying it for its apparent healthiness,” he said. However, “we found on average that gluten and gluten-free foods are just as healthy or unhealthy as each other”.

The organisation is driven by concern that consumers are making a misguided effort to improve their health through nutrition. “Fancy labels on gluten-free foods have the potential to be used as a marketing tactic, even on products that traditionally don’t have any gluten in them anyway,” said Wu, who mentioned the high cost of gluten-free. Like the manias for diet based on quasi-knowledge or compromised science that have come before and since, this demonisation of gluten serves only confusion and distracts from the fairly stable message of dietary science, which remains: eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Given a belief so widespread in the evil of gluten that jeremiads are published to dishonour it and the scientific community tries to counter these with studies of the George type, you’d think you might find a single sane gluten-related submission into the inquiry proposed by Senator Cory Bernardi on food third-party certifications. An inquiry that alleges, by the way, to be about all food labelling and not just that provided by the nation’s halal certifiers.

While it is true that the GF label is not regulated by a single body and can be used by any company that recognises that people are idiots, it is also true that the overwhelming majority of the 440 submissions by individuals betray no interest in sticking to the rules. “SAHRIA [sic] LAW HAS NO PLACE IN AUSTRALIA,” say one couple, admirers of majuscule. “I try not to buy Halal products as it is supporting Muslims no one should have to pay a tax on someone else’s religious beliefs, you are probably funding terrorism, dont (sic) laugh, we are all like sheep being led astray BE WISE STOP THIS” says one particular outraged citizen, stubbornly failing, like Bernardi, to acknowledge the veracity of the investigation by the Australian Crime Commission into the matter.  The organisation said last year that it was “not aware of any direct links between the legitimate halal certification industry and money laundering or the financing of terrorist groups”. Nor is this declaration enough to convince another gentleman, who is concerned for the “roll (sic) religion is playing in this nation” and abroad where, the citizen proposes, halal certification monies may flow to fund, you guessed it, terrorism.

“In the civic spirit of not being an arsehole, perhaps we do have a responsibility to consider how responsible food labelling may assist the health of the nation.”

I was able to endure only about 300 of the submissions, and these I found more emotionally draining than gluten is purported to be. But this incomplete survey upturns just a single urging for labelling on food that has anything to do with the properties of food. Oddly, it is in the first submission we find an entirely rational request for better labelling on foods deemed safe for diabetes, a much greater threat to the lives of Australian nationals than “SAHRIA” terrorists. Apart from that and a handful of submissions from Muslims who dare to explain that industrial food production sources its ingredients from such a broad range of ingredients that it is in the commercial interests of local producers to have their goods certified for export — a point also made by the Australian Food and Grocery Council — it’s all Facebook-activated cowardice of the “I won’t eat your death cult” variety.

It’s a great shame that organisations like the Q Society have provided much of the source material for individual submissions here. This inquiry could produce useful results to, for example, those who need to monitor their sugar, those who would like to trust the “free range” claims of egg producers or those who might propose that labelling should not ever serve the interests of a minority. But a minority is dominating this inquiry with claims even more false or misleading than those upchucked by the Paleo food industry with an almost unanimous plea that halal certified foods must be plainly labelled as such in order that customers can avoid them.

As things stand, no chicken or diabetic will benefit so much as one chocolate-loving couple, who blame Islam for the reduction in the size of the Freddo Frog. “Why is this minority standing over the 97% of Australians by forcing this phony tax upon us?” ask choco-philes, unable to see that (a) a marketing decision of moderate cost, like halal certification or focus group research, is not a tax however much the anti-halal agitators name it so; and (b) they are a minority demanding to have their consumer interests served.

I do understand the urge to avoid products that contain an unwanted moral ingredient, and it is for this reason I have resisted the purchase of both a SodaStream and an iPhone. I am prepared to forego the substantial lure of fizzy drinks and late tech because I have a thing about unfair labour. I am not claiming moral supremacy over my chocolate-loving compatriots here, and I certainly admire the resolve that causes them to shun Freddo, history’s most delicious amphibian. I am suggesting, however, that if you despise a particular practice, faith or ideology enough to want to boycott it, you should probably also hate it to the degree that you google “boycott+death+cult”. The onus is on me to avoid Israeli-made products as it is on the our Freddo lovers to avoid things they might deem too Islamic. Neither of us has any business subjugating the rest of Australia to our minority will.

But, in the civic spirit of not being an arsehole, perhaps we do have a responsibility to consider how responsible food labelling may assist the health of the nation. Perhaps this means regulating unfounded and potentially misleading health claims like “gluten free”, or perhaps it means revisiting the terms of the Heart Foundation tick or considering a system to aid consumers with diabetes.

Some 55,000 Australians suffer heart attacks each year, with cardiovascular disease our leading cause of death. Death attributed to Type 2 diabetes in the indigenous population remains at 1700 persons per year, what could very credibly be called a health crisis. The management of both these serious and costly diseases has been explicitly linked to diet, yet mention of how a simple thing like labelling could be efficiently deployed  here remains largely absent from submissions to a report that is full of poorly punctuated whining on how Freddo needs a ghutra.

So, if we are not to permit a minority of whiners who believe that the fast-moving consumer goods marketing budget they are opposing is a “tax”, and that the greatest health threat to the nation is terrorism and not a diet formerly rich in Freddo, we should, perhaps, look to people like Wu for inspiration in our submissions to the inquiry. You have until the end of the month.

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12 thoughts on “Food-labelling debate swarmed by phony glutards and anti-halal whiners

  1. Michael Zarb

    “Gluten free” is not a “unfounded and potentially misleading health claim”. It is a statement of fact that makes it easier for people with Coeliac disease to eat safely.

    The current craze of people without Coeliac disease avoiding gluten is actually pretty great for those who have it. The range of safe products available on the market has massively increased over the last 5 years or so and this has great benefits for people who would otherwise have to eliminate whole categories of foods and beverages from their diet.

    It is also misleading to suggest there is no benefit to people avoiding gluten. It is true that a small subset are intolerant to gluten, there are other people who are intolerant/allergic to grains that contain gluten (but not the gluten itself). This can lead to IBS. For those people avoiding gluten = avoiding those grains = feeling better.

  2. rachel612

    Don’t knock the neo-hippies. I’m coeliac. A few decades ago it was nigh impossible to eat out. Now, thanks to all these lunatics who don’t need gluten free food but somehow think it’s good for them, there’s barely a restauranteur in the country that doesn’t offer a menu I can choose from. I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it was to travel in the 90s – now it’s easy. As Michael Zarb says below, we’ve never had it so good.

    Think of the lunatic fringe as merely helping we “differently abled” folk to fit right in and enjoy normal lives. If they want to do it, they’re not causing themselves too much harm (beyond denying themselves real pasta and good bread) and they’re helping the tiny minority more than they know.

  3. Sean Judd

    So an I Phone is a definite no no but you’re ok with forced funding of Islam through certification.
    Fascinating view.

  4. Helen Razer

    Sean. You have failed to read my statement in context. I explicitly said that I had a particular aversion to unfair labour. Which is to say, a company that imposes particular conditions on workers and, in fact, forces them to endure a range of indignities is something with which I have no truck. What I said is that this is my perspective but what I also say is that I should not bend other consumers to my will. That I happen to think that labour conditions which fail to meet a minimum standard of dignity and have been described by independent and Chinese authorities as “forced labour camps” is not the issue. The issue is one of personal responsibility when it comes to consumer choices. I avoid iPhone for this reason and you, if you wish, can avoid Halal foods. But what neither of us should expect is a range of “warnings” on food that make our decisions easier. It’s up to us to research and we cannot expect the state to impose warnings that coincide with out particular world views.
    I would say that Halal certification is not “forced” by any means other than market demand. As many Muslims and many representatives from the Australian FMCG industry have said, while they welcome the opportunity for transparency in the certification process (one, by the way, we have not subject Kosher certification authorities to) this is something that is “forced” only by the market. Which is to say, if foods are shown to be palatable to the broadest range of consumers, they are more likely to be bought locally (I have heard the 98% argument, but then again, what manufacturer in their right mind would give up a potential 2% of the grocery buying public. This just doesn’t make sense) and certainly more export ready.
    It is not “forced” nor is it a “tax” any more than any other marketing decision by a FMCG manufacturer. Focus groups costs, all marketing research in particular demographics, “gluten free” designation and a range of things that help bring a product to a wide or niche attention all cost money and are all only as “forced” as certification.

  5. Sean Judd

    No Helen, I did read your statement in context, including your obvious bias.

    You failed to mention that over 40% of halal certified products are not labelled, but that almost all kosher products are labelled. It gets even worse when you look specifically at meat.
    You failed to address any of the discrimination that exists in Halal certification. Sikh’s for example find it next to impossible to identify a product such as cream, that may contain halal meat byproducts. Sikh’s are not permitted to eat any halal meat product regardless of whether it’s a chop or an ingredient in bread.
    You haven’t addressed peoples objection to halal based on the 250,000 plus animals slaughtered in Australia each year without any stunning. The CSIRO will confirm for you that many of these animals suffer conscious pain levels for up to 30 seconds after having their throat cut.
    You haven’t addressed the many Atheists, myself included, that simply object to the tens of millions raised for Islam each year through certification and would prefer not to fund religion, any religion. I honestly can’t recall the last time a Muslim organisation funded an Atheist convention – you?
    You haven’t addressed the issue that many certifiers that are clearly operating as businesses, are operating as charities allowing them to collectively avoid millions in tax each year.
    Did you know the Supreme Islamic Council of Halal Meat spent a third of its revenue on travel, most of that international travel? Quite an achievement for a domestic certifier. 320k spent on travel.
    If you genuinely believe people aren’t forced then I can only assume you’ve never actually tried to identify certified products. If certification is indeed to enable Muslims to identify halal products, then why is it so difficult? Most companies simply ignore requests form information, try for yourself. I suggest you start with Simplot and SPC.

    If you’re going to write an article on the subject at least be objective. There are many out there that don’t care about any 98:02 ratio, we don’t care about any terrorism angle, but we do care about many of the questionable practices of halal and more so halal certification.
    Would you be as supportive of Halal Certification if you replaced the word Islam with Scientology? Remove the politically correct goggles and have a real look at the industry, then write your article.

    Regards

  6. Helen Razer

    Hi Sean. I didn’t address these things because my explicit point was that serving one consumer bias, in this case to avoid Halal products, over another, as that of persons such as myself, is, in fact serving a minority will.
    I do not defend Halal slaughter practice. But, then again, I do not defend the slaughter and raising of animals for human consumption and so, I don’t eat meat at all. I do not defend religion which I regard as an ultimately harmful cultural identity practice. Then again, I have attended atheist conventions which, for mine, are just another ultimately harmful reaffirmation of identity and, given the nature of their well-to-do clientele, hardly need funding beyond the hefty attendance fee. And, when Sam Harris starts selling atheist-endorsed butter, I’ll make sure to avoid it because that dude must not, in my view, be funded on his dangerous quest to say nothing and pose as a scientist while doing it.
    But, that’s my personal view. It is not something I believe I can realistically or ethically impose on others. And, as much as I despise modern industrial food production which has a range of problems the least of which is Halal practice, I know that the imposition of my will on others to avoid the foods that I avoid for moral reasons is a weak hypocrisy.
    I would like stickers that show unsustainable practice. I would like stickers that show illegal work practice. I would like stickers that plainly indicate if animal parts are used in the product. I would like to know if the company who produced the item is known to resist union labour. My list of requirements for an acceptable product is long and certainly exceeds the constraints of packaging, which, if it encases a product at all, I would prefer to be minimal and biodegradable and made from sustainable materials.
    You can say that your objections to Islam and Halal are more moral or urgent than mine, but I don’t know how you’d prove this. And I don’t know how you justify serving the interest of a minority who’ve done a lovely job of bringing Bernardi and his taxpayer funded inquiry into how to serve minority interest.
    Yes, you can have your objections and they may be valid. But to privilege these above other equally decent objection is selfish and, dare I say it, anti-market.

  7. Chris Hartwell

    Sean, you’re neglecting that certification – of any description – is ultimately a commercial decision. It would not be undertaken without there being a financial benefit to the certified. Case in point – ISO9001.

    If there’s one benefit this whole nonsense can bring forward, it’s a consistent and enforceable definition of the terms ‘organic’, ‘natural’ and ‘gmo-free’

  8. Mark M

    This is a great article. I would love food labelling to be useful and for many in the food industry to be take to task for disingenuous food labelling practices (like the whole free range chicken certification debacle). Who cares about Halal certification – all that really means is that if I were Muslim, then I could eat it. What the hell is wrong with that?

    On the other hand, disingenuous food labelling like claiming that barley sugar is 100% fat free is not right. I liked the idea of the health star labelling, Pity our current overlords were busing paying back their donors when that idea was put to rest.

  9. Sean Judd

    Mark – Halal means you can eat it, it’s permissible to consume. I’ve no problem with Halal as almost everything is halal regardless. Halal Certification however is the business which even many Muslims object to. When companies are required to pay to certify products which are naturally halal such as bottled water, wheat, rice etc, then certification has little to do with identifying halal product and more about generating profit. It’s ridiculous that a chocolate bar sold in Australia has paid for certification, but the identical product sold in Saudi Arabia has not.

    Chris, of course it’s commercial. It’s a profitable enterprise run in the name of religion, a bit like Hillsong is a profitable enterprise run in the name of religion. But I can avoid Hillsong.

    Helen this line sums you up quite well “You can say that your objections to Islam and Halal are more moral or urgent than mine”
    You see I have never stated or implied that I have a specific problem with Islam, indeed I don’t. Many of my concerns over religious profiteering also extend to Kosher and companies such as Sanitarium. Any specific issue with Islam was a leap you made based on no evidence whatsoever – which is why so much of today’s journalism is flawed, it’s too lazy to be accurate.

    You’re argument essentially argues for the removal of country of origin, sugar content etc from labels. These labels are required because consumers want to know this information, yet you dismiss this need when it relates to religion. Why do you have a problem with Muslims being able to identify non halal product? Which, by extension, is what you’re arguing.
    Consumers should be able to identify product information that is important to them, I fail to see why a minority would object to that, but I guess there will always be those that object simply for the sake of objecting. To deny that is to say that deception is ok. If a company claims a product is religiously Certified but isn’t, this practice is illegal in Australia. However if a product is religiously certified but that information is withheld from consumers, that practice is allowed. Both examples provide the same level of deception, however one is legal and the other illegal.

    With regards to addressing the main issues, I would argue that you didn’t address those issues for the same reason most other media refuses to address those issues, it doesn’t make for a good story.
    Look at the Fleurieu mess, litterally hundreds of articles written about the company losing a 50,000 contract after dropping certification. Look at the outrage it generated – yet you won’t find one story from any mainstream media. The company never dropped certification, they never lost any Emirates business and to their credit, they did try and clarify that with the media – however that didn’t make for a good story. The company received thousands in free exposure all due to a media stuff up.

  10. Helen Razer

    Hey, Rachel and Michael. I meant no disrespect to my Coeliac fellows. I do appreciate that it is now easier for those afflicted with this condition or to those who have other low-prevalence disorders which may be enflamed by the protein and that this is a good by-product of the labelling trend. The bad one, though, is that now a sizeable percentage of people now believe that “Gluten Free” automatically means health and that there are others who may be experiencing gastric distress for a range of reasons and just put it down, erroneously, to gluten. It’s good for you, this plain labelling. But it’s not good in a majority sense where many people see gluten as a demon whose avoidance alone will restore their health.
    Same with Halal, in a sense. To demand, as this mob are, that Halal certification appears on all products where it is granted is, in the current climate, a way to elevate something to demon status.
    Of course, I know CD is a very serious and painful condition and that you can feel quite close to death after eating a mis-labelled bun. I also know that its prevalence seems to be higher in AU than other nations. (I know the popular view here is that there’s SO Much Wheat in our diet that its consumption has formed resistance. But I also know that some research strongly suggests that CD is genetic, explaining its higher incidence in some population groups over others.) Still, I think a more honest approach would be “Coeliac Safe” labelling. I haven’t thought it through completely, obvi. But I wish someone would and submit it to an inquiry entirely dominated by people who want to avoid Muslims.
    Good luck with your continued gastrointestinal health and may your local stores continue to stock wheat-free soba!

  11. Chris Hartwell

    Sean, I referred to the companies being certified, not carrying out the certification. They would not get certified if there weren’t any commercial benefit.

  12. Sean Judd

    Yes Chris, that was the point I responded to.

    Keep in mind that peak principles will at some point come into effect. The halal specific market now covers just over 20% of the global food market, the lower that level the greater the trading advantage, the higher that percentage is and the greater the competition will be reducing any trading advantage. Reuters expect it to pass 30% around 2024 (from memory). However as markets are gained by certifiers, so is the level of control. We’re already seeing that through meat exports. Australian exporters were quick to expand Halal specific exports. Now almost every processor in Australia is Halal prepared, which means they either employ Muslim slaughterman or have access to them, additionally in many cases they have had to change slaughter processes which can be costly.
    The outlay for the processors can at times be significant, this is before all the costs of certification itself. Yes, those costs were justified as the market increase was significant enough, however if you were to focus specifically on the last two years then growth to muslim specific markets simply isn’t there, there has been no financial gain year on year. However their situation now is a case of do or die, they have created new markets and although growth isn’t there, should they drop certification they would inevitably lose a market.
    So it’s a case of certification for financial gain making a natural and predictable progression to prevention of loss. The argument of economic gain is not a sustainable one as has been demonstrated with many other industries – the above scenario is certainly not unique to halal certification.

    The MLA has also expressed concern over the stability on the halal market, this is largely based on the fact that Muslims can’t actually agree on what Halal is. For example there are Imams in the UK encouraging all Muslims to boycott meat that has been slaughtered after a reversible stun, which includes meat from Australia. So companies are paying for certification, those funds are often directed to Islamic charities to further Islam, only to have Muslims turn around and boycott the very meat that was just certified because it isn’t halal enough.

    The secondary economic issue that relates to companies objecting to enforced labelling is that the number of people that would prefer to avoid certified food or religiously slaughtered food is significant enough to impact on sales. Yet the Muslim community has shown it can self promote through a multitude of web pages, blogs, apps etc. While labelling would benefit the muslim community, it isn’t imperative. However the potential loss for labelling from the broader population is very apparent. Which is why when you ask a company which of their products are certified, far too often you’ll just be ignored, unless you’re name is Mohammed (yes I did put it to the test).
    Many people that object just want a free market, which I don’t think is unreasonable.

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