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Issue #1615      October 23, 2013

Irradiated food

Coming to a supermarket near you

On May 24 Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) approved the irradiation of tomatoes and capsicums. This is the first time that irradiation has been approved for foods that make up a significant part of our diet – but it won’t be the last.

Irradiation is the process of exposing food or other materials to ionising radiation. It is used for shelf-life extension and for neutralising, not removing, contaminants or pests. Irradiation decreases the vitamin and nutritional content of food and disrupts its molecular structure, producing free radicals and potentially harmful chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and cyclobutanones.

To date, FSANZ has approved the irradiation of tomatoes, capsicums, herbs, spices, herbal teas, mangoes, mangosteens, pawpaws, carambolas, breadfruits, custard apples, lychees, longans, rambutans and persimmon. Pet food, animal feed and therapeutic goods may also be irradiated.

While acknowledging that irradiation may deplete vitamin and nutritional content, FSANZ has so far justified irradiation approvals on the basis that the approved foods make up a minimal part of the Australian and New Zealander diet. Now they are approving some of our most commonly eaten fruits.

Recent surveys have shown that 59 percent of Australians purchase fresh tomatoes in their weekly shopping and the average Australian consumes an estimated 23 kilograms of tomato-based products per year. The irradiation of a further 16 commonly eaten foods is in the pipeline with irradiation being flagged for zucchinis, honey dew melons, rockmelons, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, apricots, plums, peaches, table grapes, and apples.

Proponents down play science that exposes problems with irradiation. However, claims that irradiated food has a safe track record are misleading as no long-term study of human consumption of an irradiated diet has been carried out.

Irradiation destroys and disrupts vitamins, proteins, essential fatty acids and other nutrients in food – sometimes significantly. It can destroy up to 80% of vitamin A in eggs and 48% of beta-carotene in orange juice. It has been linked to health problems such as nutritional deficiencies, immune system disorders, and genetic damage.

Another health concern is the risk of irradiation being used to mask poor production practices. Irradiation can kill most bacteria in food, but it does not remove the faeces, urine, pus and vomit that often contaminate meat or the pests or other foreign matter that may contaminate herbs, spices, or fruit and vegetables.

In 2008, up to 100 Australian pet cats suffered neurological disease linked to eating irradiated cat food. The Australian government has since banned the irradiation of cat food. FSANZ asserts the problems were species specific and continues to expand the list of foods permitted to be irradiated for human consumption. In late 2012, however, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that it would commence investigations into the possibility that consumption of irradiated food has led to the unexplained deaths of 360 dogs and one cat and illnesses in 2,200 dogs since 2007.

Numerous scientific reports have been produced questioning the safety of irradiation. The Australian cats affected by irradiation were not experimental animals but family pets. The real life example of the potential impacts of an irradiated diet warrants an immediate cessation of all food irradiation – until it is proven safe.

Australian irradiated tomatoes will most likely soon be sold in New Zealand and the public is expressing their concern. A New Zealand Herald poll in June 2013 found that 72 percent of respondents were “very concerned” or a “little worried”.

Spin

With real concerns about the technology in the community, irradiation proponents are working hard to present a positive spin on irradiation as an “alternative” to pesticide use. The claim is disingenuous. As a postharvest treatment, irradiation will not substitute for the numerous chemicals and pesticides potentially used in “conventional” agriculture. Irradiation will be used in conjunction with them, raising further concerns about the interaction of radiation and those chemicals. Irradiation for “phytosanitary control” is a prime example of an industry-driven use of bad technology instead of healthy and environmentally sustainable production practices.

In 1986, the Queensland government produced research promoting the post-harvest use of dimethoate and fenthion for controlling fruit fly on tomatoes. Thirty-five years on, this research has proven faulty. The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (AVPMA) are withdrawing the use of these chemicals because they are harmful to human health. The Queensland government has now presented its own, new, unpublished research to secure approvals to irradiate tomatoes in lieu of these chemicals.

There is no technological need for irradiation to replace these chemicals. Australia was the only country permitting dimethoate to be used for post-harvest pest control. This alone tells us that all other markets have found other options. Indeed, the taskforce phasing out this chemical has provided growers numerous chemical alternatives to dimethoate and fenthion. Of course, non-chemical alternatives such as organic production exist.

Some of the alternatives currently in use include: cold storage; cold treatment; heat/steam, vapour treatment; hot water dips; atmospheric control with oxygen, carbon dioxide or nitrogen; physical disinfestation i.e. cleaning, washing; hygienic and safe production practices; pest exclusion zones; early harvesting; and organic production.

With numerous chemical-free and irradiation-free options for the production of food, the use of irradiation as a phytosanitary measure is inexcusable. Both irradiation and the pesticides currently being phased out may provide financially cost-effective production practices for market access, yet in doing so they put our health and long-term food security at risk.

Labelling

Irradiated tomatoes, capsicums and other produce may start to appear in our shops without labels. The tomatoes and capsicums will be irradiated in Queensland. They may be sold in Queensland but are likely to be sent interstate and overseas. Shoppers in southern states and New Zealand must keep a particular eye out for Queensland tomatoes.

Food Irradiation Watch advises shoppers wishing to avoid irradiated produce to look down at the produce to see if there is a sticker and then look up to see if there is a sign. Current laws allow shops to use a sign close to irradiated produce, rather than actual stickers or labels. There is no mandatory wording for the irradiation statement, leaving the messaging up to marketing companies. Neither the words radiation nor irradiation is required.

Knowing that people do not want to consume irradiated food, the industry has long pushed for weak labelling laws, such as the ones we have today. Inadequate labelling already makes it difficult for consumers to know if a product has been irradiated. Now Australia is poised to get rid of labelling all together; FSANZ will be undertaking a review of mandatory irradiation labelling in 2014.

In 2013 - 2014. Food Irradiation Watch will be mounting a campaign to ensure that our right to know is protected: irradiated food must be labelled.

We need your help! Refuse to eat irradiated food! Let your supermarket, greengrocer and your local politician know that you want to eat irradiation free and to do so you demand that irradiated food be labelled.

The messages are clear: good food does not need irradiating and irradiated food does require labelling.

To find out more: website:foodirradiationwatch.org
Robin Taubenfeld is a member of Friends of the Earth, Brisbane and Food Irradiation Watch. Source: Chain Reaction August 2013
The Beacon

Next article – Attack on civil rights – Queensland leads the pack

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