By Anne Casey
Three years ago the Australian government put a moratorium on food irradiation and on the import of irradiated food. Today, serious and unresolved questions about the issue remain.
The government commissioned the World Health Organisation to conduct a comprehensive review of food irradiation produce a properly referenced scientific report. The WHO report is now finished but, at a time when the National Food Authority is inviting public comments on a food standard which could overturn the ban, the report has not been publicly released.
Questions centre on the safety of irradiated food, the possibility of irradiation destroying vitamins and other essential nutrients and the potential abuse of irradiation in international trade, with the need for a method of detection and control.
Tony Webb of the Food Policy Alliance and co-author of Food Irradiation: The myth and the reality, says, "These questions were rightly raised by the Australian government back in 1989. Is it safe? Is it controllable? Is it needed? If it isn't needed, who wants it and why?"
The government has adopted a strategy of promoting Australian food as clean, green and of high quality. This is aimed at both the Australian consumer and the export market in the Asia Pacific region. This is supposed to be an integrated approach, linking elements of sustainable development, such as integrated pest management and land care, with industrial development.
It's claimed the strategy would guarantee jobs for 130,000 farmers and 170,000 workers in the food processing industry. In combination with auxiliary jobs, this would make roughly 1 million jobs — one in eight jobs in the Australian economy.
Says Webb, "All of this could be seriously undermined if the Australian government went down the
route of allowing irradiated food in Australia. The bottom line is, if any food had to be irradiated, the consumers will need to ask what was wrong with it. Good food doesn't need irradiation."
Promoters of food irradiation claim its safety has been tested more thoroughly than any other food process. But not all experts agree. The Australian government's recommendation to WHO that it reinvestigate the safety of irradiated food was endorsed by the International Organisation of Consumer Unions, representing some 170 independent consumer groups in 65 countries.
WHO attempted to include a statement that there were no unresolved safety issues in the final document of an international conference on food irradiation held in Geneva in 1988. The statement had to be withdrawn because of opposition from a number of countries.
Evidence from animal feeding trials suggests possible adverse effects, including low birth weights and reproductive effects such as miscarriages and genetic mutations, as well as an increased incidence of tumours and a lowered immune response. The antibody response in animals fed irradiated food (even when given large vitamin supplements) was reduced by 20-80%. (Source: Fact sheet of The Australian Food Inspector, a PSU journal for Commonwealth food inspectors.)
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) argues that food irradiation is needed to reduce the risk of food poisoning and promotes it heavily on this basis. There is no doubt that the incidence of food poisoning is increasing; UK data shows a four-fold increase since the 1970s.
In almost all cases, however, food poisoning is primarily the result of a breakdown in hygiene during the production, processing and handling of food. This can be compounded by problems of temperature control.
Opponents argue that if food is hygienically handled according to "good manufacturing practices" (GMP), irradiation is an irrelevance; if GMP has not been applied, irradiation is a dangerous and unacceptable alternative.
Spices, for example, are a product which most consumers think of as useful to preserve foods. But they can be a source of food poisoning. At one stage the National Food Authority (NFA) was considering that, if anything was permitted to be irradiated, it would be spices, arguing that this was the only way to reduce the risks associated with them.
Says Webb, "We are rightly banning the use of ethylene oxide for the fumigation of spices because it's an occupational hazard, but the question has to be: how did the spices get contaminated in the first place?
"There is a high level of pathogenic bacteria in spices. Could it be that sewage-contaminated water is being used for irrigation, that the spices are washed in sewage-contaminated streams and then spread out on the ground to dry in the sun, where they are crawled over by insects, flown over by birds and crawled over by rodents? This combination of ground dirt, rat shit and pigeon droppings is then ground up and called 'spices', and we wonder why there is a problem with contamination.
"An appropriate technology would be to build concrete slabs in the spice growing regions that could be sterilised, so that at least there are not additions to whatever bacterial load there is to begin with. Irradiation really has no part to play in that kind of appropriate technology approach."
If food irradiation is not needed, then who is pushing it and why?
The bottom line, says Tony Webb, is that "It is consistently the nuclear industry looking for an 'atoms for peace' technology that they can actually say works. Everything else they've tried has failed. Nuclear power is hardly something you can recommend on a global scale as being of benefit to humanity after Chernobyl and Harrisburg and the clean-up mess in the former Soviet Union.
"So they are left with this being the last saving grace for 50 years of research into nuclear technology. If they can't sell this one, they're dead."
Pressure within Australia for a lifting of the ban is coming from ANSTO, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation.
Despite the fact that Australia has refused to support financially any of the international consultative groups organised by the International Atomic Energy Agency, ANSTO has been participating in a research project, encouraging various countries in this region to engage in shipping trials of irradiated food between each other.
The other unanswered question is just how serious the Australian government is about its "clean green" food policy. The National Food Authority is currently conducting a review aimed at harmonising food standards. It rejected a proposed guideline for the review that it "not lower Australian food standards".
Groups such as the Air, Food and Water Information Network believe maintaining public pressure is essential to ensure that the present ban is not overturned. They have made detailed submissions to the National Food Authority recommending that the NFA place a general prohibition on the use of ionising radiation to treat food and on the importation of irradiated food.
Webb comes in strongly behind a campaigning approach. "We've got to maintain and step up the public pressure with letters to the NFA and the minister, Graham Richardson. People should write, requesting that copies of the report be made available for public review and comment, that the deadline for public comment on the NFA's proposal to make a standard on irradiation be extended, and stating that they want to be kept informed of the progress of the debate.
"They should also ask the NFA to hold public hearings in all the major cities to allow concerned people to contribute to the debate. That way we can take the government's talk of a clean food strategy and begin to turn it into a reality. In that light, banning irradiated foods is a touchstone issue."
Letters should be sent to Gae Pincus, Chairperson, National Food Authority, PO Box 7186, Canberra MC
2610, and Senator Graham Richardson, Minister for Health, Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600.