The events leading to this latest setback for the pro-hemp lobby began in 2010, when the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation considered application A1039, the second application to allow hemp foods in Australia following an original 1998 application. The ministers asked Fsanz to comment on the application, following which the antipodean food regulator voiced its support.
Two years later, the forum again debated the application, and asked Fsanz to investigate the matter a second time. This they did, and reaffirmed their support for allowing hemp as a food.
In January this year, while acknowledging Fsanz’s advice that “TDI of 6 μg [tetrahydrocannabinol] per kg [body weight is] valid and that the maximum limits for THC content of hemp foods are appropriate”, the forum took the application off the table, though it still left the door open for another review, this time to look at law enforcement, roadside testing and and marketing concerns.
The forum raised two issues in its ruling: were CBD [cannabidiol] levels and marketing sending a confused message to consumers about the safety of cannabis; and how difficult would it be to police the use of hemp foods?
Fsanz responded with a statement. “The Forum noted that Fsanz found that foods derived from the seeds of low-THC hemp do not present any safety concerns as food, and that concerns regarding the impact on police THC drug testing fall beyond the remit of Fsanz,” it said.
Hemp seeds, oil, protein and flour are legal in nearly every country in the world, says Paul Benhaim, chief executive of Hemp Foods, the biggest nutritional hemp manufacturer in the southern hemisphere, adding that Europe’s legal hemp industry is also growing faster than any other market in its class.
“[But in Australia] CBD is a new word for ministers. CBD is touted as a wonder cure and is being sold legally in most countries of the world, including the USA, as a dietary supplement,” says Benhaim.
“Many users are stating that this product has helped reduce tumours, fix supposedly incurable epilepsy, reversed Parkinson’s disease and many other inflammation-related symptoms. CBD is non-psychoactive and is seen as a natural constituent of industrial hemp oil. Medical cannabis is a different product and is usually high THC.”
Even some MPs are now calling for hemp’s use as a health food. After visiting a New South Wales hemp farm, shadow agriculture minister Joel Fitzgibbon declared: “With an increasing demand for protein-rich foods, legalising industrial hemp seed as a food offers Australian primary producers and manufacturers the opportunity to participate in the growing international demand for 'super foods', of which the industrial hemp seed is a 'super hero’.”
And Tasmania’s health minister Michael Ferguson called the forum’s decision “a missed opportunity to remove an unnecessary prohibition on the use of low-THC hemp in food products.”
High-THC hemp products are being studied in Australia across clinical trials being supported by the NSW Government.
Asked about the confusion the forum ruled that consumers might have between THC and CBD, Benhaim questions why his product should even fall under the Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation’s jurisdiction when it has already grown an increasing market of health users.
“What has this got to do with hemp as a food? We don’t know either. Again, it seems the only confusion is the one made by ministers. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of Australian and New Zealand people are using hemp seeds, hemp oil and hemp protein, which is only allowed as a skincare and not as a food. So it seems the public are not confused.”
Issues to do with law enforcement have been the biggest problem the pro-hemp lobby has faced. The police believe there “may be an issue”, says Benhaim, though he reasons that Fsanz’s own figures show that the relationship between THC levels in industrial hemp and roadside drug testing equipment’s cut-off mean this will not be a concern.
“The bottom line: no one has, or is willing to, fund a study to prove this one way or another. We have previously tested it ourselves by eating a lot of hemp foods, then using the same drug testing equipment, which anyone can buy, and found negative results for THC. Therefore there is no problem.”