Monday, September 25, 2006

"Organic": Nobody can tell the difference

Australia's peak consumer watchdog has called for urgent government action to stop what it claims is a multi-milliondollar organic food rort [racket]. The Australian Consumers' Association has accused the Federal Government of "dragging its feet" while consumers are being misled. The organic food industry is worth an estimated $450 million a year in Australia, and is one of the fastest-growing food sectors worldwide. Association spokeswoman Indira Naidoo said consumers were being ripped off. "There is no government regulation about what defines organic food," she said. "Consumers, in most cases, aren't getting what they pay for."

In many cases, they were paying two or three times as much as the cost of "ordinary" produce. "We are calling for a national government guideline that defines what standards organic food should meet. "Given the amount of organic products being consumed and the number of people being misled by incorrect labelling, we think it's an urgent priority. "We feel the Government has been dragging its feet on this issue. It's very misleading. It's definitely a rort."

Organic food labelling is controlled by the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service. The self-regulatory system has seven private organic certifying groups in Australia plus several overseas groups. They are all accredited by AQIS, but there are variations on what is accepted as organic. There are also products on the market claiming to be organic that aren't associated with any certifying body. But Organic Federation of Australia chairman Andre Leu disputed the claim consumers were being misled. "I would challenge the ACA very strongly on that," he said. "The vast majority of organic food is reputable. If there's fraud, it's negligible. "I would say to consumers: If food is not accredited, we cannot guarantee it is produced according to our standard. Stay away from products that don't have certifying logos."

Standards Australia is developing a standard for organic food, but the ACA said this needed to be supported by tougher government guidelines. "While an Australian Standard is a step in the right direction, it isn't necessarily mandatory," Ms Naidoo said. "We would like to see it referenced in the Food Standards Code to give it the force of law. "It's very important people know what they are consuming is legitimately labelled organic."

However, Food Standards Australia New Zealand spokeswoman Lydia Buchtmann said the Food Standards Code was not the right place to define "organic". "The Food Standards Code is about ensuring food safety and not so much for descriptions," she said. "We are working with Standards Australia to define organic food, and we feel that is being addressed appropriately."


Greenies hit everybody's pocket

The states should be investigated for anti-competitive behaviour over their restrictive land release policies, a leading housing chief declared. Former Housing Industry Association president Bob Day yesterday said the strategies were creating a new era of lifetime renters. He blamed urban planners obsessed with curbing the size of cities for an "artificial" land shortage that was driving up property prices.

Now chair of the Institute of Public Affairs' Great Australian Dream project, launched last month by Treasurer Peter Costello, Mr Day warned of "horrendous" social consequences linked to the affordability crisis. In a speech to the Australian Christian Lobby's conference in Canberra, Mr Day said families were forking out $300,000 more on mortgages than they should. Until the early 1990s, the median house price had consistently been three times that of average household income. Sydney house prices were now more than eight times the average household income, and it was six times the average household income in the other capital cities.

"For those on middle and low incomes, the prospect of ever becoming home owners has now all but evaporated as they face the prospect of being lifetime renters," Mr Day said. Mr Day, a recently endorsed Liberal candidate for the South Australian federal seat of Makin, urged people to drive to the outskirts of major cities to see the "abundant" land suitable for housing. "The so-called land shortage is a matter of political choice, not of fact," he said. "Perhaps we should be asking the ACCC to investigate the anti-competitive behaviour of state and territory government land agencies, and their association with big land developers."

Mr Day challenged the attitude that the spread of suburbia damaged the environment and encouraged car use. He said planners who demonised urban growth had inflicted enormous damage on the economy without any scientific or intellectually sustainable arguments to support their dogma.


Long delays for cancer diagnosis

Women suspected of having breast cancer are waiting longer than seven days to be diagnosed because of a national shortage of pathologists. Instead of the recommended 24-hour diagnosis, the Royal College of Pathologists of Australasia (RCPA) reports that some women are waiting more than a week to be diagnosed. The lack of pathologists also means some women wait as long as four months for autopsy results after a miscarriage.

The Sunday Telegraph revealed earlier this month that some families had been forced to wait a year to learn their loved ones' cause of death because the Westmead morgue had been unable to fill vacancies for forensic pathologists. The college has blamed the Commonwealth and state governments for failing to honour commitments to fund additional training positions to address the problem.

RCPA chief executive officer Debra Graves said the situation had reached crisis point, with patient health potentially put at risk. She said some women with breast lumps had to repeat diagnostic procedures because of the pathologists shortage. Dr Graves said it was advisable that a pathologist perform or supervise diagnostic procedures to ensure the correct cells were taken, but the unavailability of pathologists had resulted in cases where incorrect cells had been taken, forcing patients to repeat procedures. "It is best practice to have a woman with a lump diagnosed within 24 hours, but what we are seeing at the moment is women having to wait for anything up to a week because they've had to come back," she said. "That is a terribly stressful time for a woman, but it's happening everywhere and it's getting worse."

According to the RCPA, there are 70 pathologist vacancies nationally, with the shortage affecting hospitals across Australia. Figures from the college show there are 1290 practising pathologists in Australia, 20 per cent of them aged over 60. In 2003, the Australian Medical Workforce Advisory Committee recommended that an extra 100 training positions be created over the next five years. But since that meeting, only 39 new positions have been funded instead of the recommended 300. The college put forward a budget submission to the Commonwealth for an additional $13.75 million to fund an extra 40 positions. The Commonwealth agreed to fund 10. The NSW Government has provided funding for four pathologist positions.

In the most recent RCPA Path Way journal, the college cites a cancer being undiagnosed by an overworked pathologist as a worst-case scenario if the shortage is not immediately addressed. A spokeswoman for Health Minister Tony Abbott said the training of pathologists was the responsibility of state and territory governments, but added the Commonwealth had a program to train pathologists in the private sector. "In 2004-06, $3.7 million in funding was allocated," she said.


States failing the nation's schools

State Labor governments have ceded control of curriculum to individual schools and have failed to monitor the quality of teaching because they are captives of the teachers' unions. In a vigorous attack on the state of the nation's education system, Australia's representative on the executive of the UN education body UNESCO, Kenneth Wiltshire, said the states had relinquished any effective system of measuring the standard of what is taught in schools and the performance of teachers.

Professor Wiltshire, the architect of the Queensland school curriculum under the Goss government, said school inspectors were abolished long ago but an alternative way of monitoring schools had not been introduced. "Current Labor state governments are usually under the influence of the teachers' unions so it is no wonder that teachers remain one of the very few professions who do not have external reviews," he said. He said Western Australia "with its failed experiment on outcomes-based education, and Queensland, with absolutely no external assessment in the entire P-12 spectrum, have no real way of knowing what standards their schools are achieving".

Professor Wiltshire also supported The Weekend Australian's stance against teaching school students critical literacy in English, saying deconstruction belonged at honours level in university. "If you go on deconstructing for long enough you will become a marshmallow or a jelly," he said. "School is for basics and knowledge." He said Shakespeare was studied by "just about every other Western country and many eastern ones as well, despite the claims of the critical literacy movement that he goes in and out of fashion and is 'censored' by curriculum authorities". "If Shakespeare is too difficult for most students in an English subject, would we perhaps create an alternative subject so students could study the comedies in the 'easier' subject and the tragedies in another," he writes in an article in The Weekend Australian today. "Should the Diaries of Anne Frank be replaced with the Emails of Tom Cruise or the Text Messages of Shane Warne?"

Professor Wiltshire said school curriculums failed to detail the key knowledge students should learn, instead listing competencies called outcomes. This was largely responsible for the exodus of students out of government schools into the independent system. "Our school curriculums have strayed far from being knowledge-based," he said. "Indeed, 'knowledge' has been replaced by 'information'. It is little wonder that the Howard Government's attempted reforms of schooling have gained traction with the Australian public."

While state governments could not agree on a common school leaving certificate - largely because of a squabble "over which minister's signature would appear on the certificate" - the federal Government was talking about greater uniformity, improved accountability and comparing standards.

Professor Wiltshire is the JD Story professor of public administration at the University of Queensland. He recently completed a term as special adviser to the Australian National Training Authority and is a former chairman of the Tertiary Entrance Procedures Authority.

The Weekend Australian's support for neutral, apolitical teaching of English is criticised in the current journal of the Australian Association for the Teaching of English, by high school English teacher David Freesmith. He accuses the newspaper of mounting a "political and ideological" attack on critical literacy and of failing to properly understand it. Mr Freesmith holds a masters in teaching, and has been a teacher for five years, all at Adelaide's Prince Alfred College, where he teaches English in years 8-10, English as a Second Language, French and the International Baccalaureat subject Theory of Knowledge. In his article, Mr Freesmith argues that teaching reading and writing is "inevitably ideological at some level and (has) significant political implications". He refers to writers who argue that "a skills approach to literacy can 'generate failure' among minority and working-class students", can "entrench prejudices" and so is inherently political. He also says formulating a canon of valued literature that includes Shakespeare and Dickens "or any other reading list, is ... an ideological act". "The history of English curricula suggests that the notion of a permanent English canon having been taught across generations is dubious," he says. "For example, Shakespeare, the very centrepiece of the canon, has spent considerable periods of time out of favour, and has even, at times, been heavily censored by curriculum writers. "The notion of the canon is in fact a modern invention, tied to the modern cultural function of defining the nation. Advocacy of the canon in the curriculum may therefore be seen to be tied ... to a nationalistic ideology."

But Professor Wiltshire said the critical literacy movement was "at best negative and at worst nihilistic". "This sort of thinking is a recipe for laziness, indifference and unwillingness to identify standards and common values," he said. "It inevitably leads to a dumbing down of curriculum and therefore the students themselves ... School is for basics and knowledge, certainly accompanied by critical thinking but not in a milieu where all is relative and there are no absolutes."

Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop said yesterday the states and territories should listen to the experts and develop "more soundly based" curriculums. She said literacy and numeracy tests revealed an alarming number of students completed their schooling without strong skills in these areas. "There's a need for a greater focus on the fundamentals of subjects like English before students can be expected to deal with more advanced concepts," she said.

Professor Wiltshire said it was not only governments but also the community, including parents and industry, that decided curriculum and the challenge ahead was to define the core knowledge all students should learn. "That's the core curriculum, that's what we should agree upon as core curriculum, certainly the basis of knowledge, what a person needs to function in society, to be a citizen," he said.


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