The politics of pot continue to cloud the debate about hemp seed food in Australia despite the national food standards authority finding the product is safe to eat and a health food.
It is the second green light hemp seed food has received from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) in a decade but state and Commonwealth food ministers have again baulked at legalising what is already widely consumed elsewhere in the world.
Last month the Council of Australian Governments’ National Forum on Food Regulation deferred a decision until at least next January.
NSW Agriculture Minister Katrina Hodgkinson chaired the latest forum and said there was still concern about hemp seed food sending mixed messages over drug use.
“Is this a message saying hemp is OK and marijuana is OK? There are young and impressionable minds out there,” she said.
The minister accepted the FSANZ finding in 2011 that hemp seed food was different to marijuana and did not contain enough of the psychoactive ingredient known as THC to make consumers high.
However, Ms Hodgkinson maintained the NSW Government needed convincing on the point of legalisation.
The Government believed this would be inconsistent with existing drug policies and may have an adverse impact on police drug testing.
Australian police agencies test for THC in drivers with roadside saliva swabs.
The swab testing method was rejected by a major European Union study that found them to be unreliable.
But police agencies say the tests are extremely sensitive and legal hemp seed food could burden the courts with people challenging positive results.
Producers challenge restrictions
Australia’s biggest industrial hemp grower Phil Warner says this is not a problem in parts of the world where urine and blood tests are used to measure impairment in drivers.
“There’s [hemp seed] food all throughout Europe, all throughout North America and they have a similar police capacity as we do but they don’t have a problem,” Mr Warner said.
“What haven’t they researched or what don’t they have at their disposal to be able to detect the difference?”
Mr Warner’s company Ecofibre has farms and facilities in three states and produces about 2000 tonnes of raw material a year.
He lodged the first application for legalising hemp seed food in 1999 but its rejection meant his company was forced to produce a range of low-value products such as horse bedding and garden mulch rather than more lucrative hemp seed food and oil products.
“When we started off in this business Canada had about a $50,000 market into the United States for hemp seed products – now the retail sales in the US are worth $500 million,” Mr Warner said.
“We could have been on that bandwagon.”
Political push for public education
Tasmanian independent federal MP Andrew Wilkie says governments continue to mislead the Australian public about a safe and healthy product which could also be a lucrative new industry for farmers.
“The thing missing at the moment is the political will to explain to the community that it is safe, good for you and healthy,” Mr Wilkie said.
“For some reason [considering the] leading politicians nationally, and here in Tasmania, when it comes to potentially [using hemp seed] for medicinal use they’re being weak.”
Despite the legal restrictions hemp seed food products are being produced and sold in Australia.
Hemp Foods Australia is milling hundreds of tonnes of mostly imported seed in a factory at Bangalow in northern NSW.
The company exports to Europe, North America and Asia but also sells its seed and oil products to nearly 4,000 Australian retailers.
According to managing director Paul Banhaim the company is not breaking the law because it has a clear warning on products sold in Australia that they should not be consumed as food.
“Anyone who purchases these products must use them for external purposes only – to rub on their skin,” Mr Banhaim said.
It us a legal loophole that has helped the company grow its domestic market but there has been a recent surge in imported hemp seed food products without any such disclaimers.
Fears Australia missing out on lucrative trade
Nimbin-based industrial hemp grower Andrew Kavasilas said it was unfair imports were being sold while he could lose his license if his seed found its way into the food chain.
“That’s the problem – I can’t grow seed to export to those countries who do consume hemp food because our food code doesn’t allow it,” Mr Kavasilas said.
“I would be selling an illegal product and none of our trade partners would want to buy a product which isn’t meeting any sort of food code.”
Mr Kavisilas said it was ironic that Prime Minister Tony Abbott was recently talking up trade with Canada which is a major hemp seed producer and importer to Australia.
“They’ve got a huge hemp seed industry, huge export industry growing double digit every year,” he said.
“I’m sure [Mr Abbott] didn’t say ‘hey we’re open for business but we don’t want any more of your hemp seed food’.”
Last year the NSW Food Authority warned some retailers that selling hemp seed food was a breach of the state’s 2003 Food Act but it has decided not to take any action until the National Forum on Food Regulation makes a final determination.
In the meantime Hemp Foods Australia is expanding production to cope with booming export sales particularly in Asia.
But it has warned that it may move offshore if Australia rejects legalisation again.
“We’re going to have to look at some point where we take our business overseas, take our production facilities [overseas] to supply these overseas markets closer to market,” Mr Banhaim said.
“We are based here because we believe the COAG will make the right decision for the Australian public.”
Mr Wilkie said it was inevitable that Australians would eventually be allowed to consume legal hemp seed foods and that farmers would gain access to this market.
“There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation swirling around and when it comes to industrial hemp for human consumption there is simply not a single good reason for holding off approving it for human consumption,” he said.
“It is a healthy oil, it is a safe plant to grow and it will be very very lucrative for farmers – particularly in my home state of Tasmania.”
For Sean Murphy’s full story watch Landline on ABC TV this Sunday at noon.