Australia and New Zealand stand on the verge of legalising hemp as a food source after the head of the countries’ bilateral food agency backed its entry into the food chain.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) CEO Steve McCutcheon said his agency’s assessment revealed, “low THC hemp foods are safe to eat and may provide a useful alternative dietary source of many nutrients and polyunsaturated fatty acids, particularly omega-3 fatty acids.”
McCutcheon pointed out that hemp is used, “in a range of foods such as health bars, salad oils, non-soy tofu and non-dairy cheeses.”
Hemp vs cannabis
Lorraine Belanger, a spokesperson for FSANZ, confirmed to FoodNavigator-Asia that the body was considering an amendment to the Food Standards Code [FSC] to permit the use of processed hemp seed products as food.
“This is subject to specified maximum levels of THC and also does not cover the sale of whole or viable hemp seeds,” she said.
Currently, the FSC prohibits all species of cannabis from being added to food or sold as food in Australia and New Zealand. This covers hemp, which though safe, suffers from having ‘cousin’ varieties that contain levels of THC considered to be psychoactive, including marijuana.
The current proposal is a result of a 2009 application made by Dr Andrew Katelaris, a medical research scientist & hemp agronomist, who argued that hemp seeds offer considerable benefits freely available to the rest of the world.
A long struggle
In July, Katelaris’ application received the backing of the Dietary Association of Australia (DAA) which said it supported the use of hemp seed and its oil for its nutritional merits.
The association, which is the national association of the dietetic profession, recommended the adequate labelling and advertising of hemp foods to provide consumers with information to allay concerns about psychoactive properties.
Holly Smith, a spokesperson for the DAA, told FoodNavigator-Asia that if approved for use, hemp would be usable in products like muesli bars and breakfast cereals, salads, or muffins much like in other countries.
Belanger revealed that the regulator has previously assessed low-THC hemp foods under an application submitted in 1998, and it recommended the approval of low-THC hemp foods.
But the Australia and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council rejected this decision in 2002.
“The council expressed concerns that the availability of hemp foods may send a confused message to consumers regarding the acceptability and safety of cannabis use and create difficulties for the policing of illicit cannabis use,” she said.
The last step still the toughest
The ministerial council is the last and toughest barrier for low THC hemp foods to become a reality in the region. The council is made up of ministers from 10 Australian and New Zealand jurisdictions.
While Belanger declined to comment on what the ministerial council may or may not do, other food industry members believe that things may be different 10 years after the initial rejection.
Katherine Rich, chief executive for the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC), said there were no legitimate grounds for rejecting the proposal.
Rich disclosed that her council has supported the process since there have been no reported safety-related issues with hemp seed oil [which is approved for sale in the region] and FSANZ’s assessment has found these products to be safe.
“Though it would be presumptive of NZFGC to anticipate the views of ministers, we understand that several referrals have been made in the past to other ministerial councils such as those dealing with Drugs and with Police matters,” she said.
“Having now exhausted those routes in the past and there being no safety issue, the basis for not proceeding would seem somewhat limited if existent at all,” Rich noted.
Submissions on the application are open until February 1, 2012, after which there will be a final assessment report that the FSANZ would prepare for the FSANZ Board, early next year.
If the board approves a decision to amend the code, that decision will be notified to the ministerial council, which then has 60 days to either ask FSANZ to review its decision or inform FSANZ that it does not intend to request a review.
However, Belanger disclosed that the council has requested a discussion of this new application at a face-to-face meeting, once FSANZ has completed its consideration of the Application. This is expected to occur late next year.