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Irradiation - Is it Safe And Do We Need It?

While the New Zealand government took positive initial steps towards labelling of genetically engineered foods at this weeks ANZFA meeting, safe food advocates are worried over another agreement to allow irradiated food into New Zealand.

Irradiated food - that is food treated with radiation to kill bacteria and to extend shelf life - has been banned in New Zealand as part of our nuclear-free policy for ten years. This however is set to change. Health Minister Wyatt Creech has agreed in principle for New Zealand to begin accepting irradiated foods if they are appropriately labelled.

The labelling fails to address the issues for many people who claim the food is potentially unsafe and that it compromises and waters down our nuclear-free commitment. So what is irradiation, why do we need it and is it safe?

Irradiation occurs when pallets of food are moved through an irradiation chamber. Once inside the chamber a rack of radioactive material, usually cobalt-60 which is used in nuclear power plants, bombards the food with radiation. Irradiated meats are subjected to radiation levels of about 300,000 RADS, or the equivalent of three million chest X-rays.

Properly conducted irradiation does not make the food radioactive. However it does break up the molecular structure of the food and creates a whole new set of chemicals, known as ‘unique radiolytic products’ or URP’s. Some undesirable URP’s include benzene and formaldehyde.

It has been proven that irradiation also kills vitamins, enzymes and the beneficial bacteria that naturally control harmful bacteria. Opponents of irradiation say it effectively leaves the food ‘dead’ and useless to the body. Irradiation does not kill all bacteria and radiation-resistant strains of bacteria have been developed under lab conditions.

Health Minister Wyatt Creech said from Canberra that concerns over irradiation by New Zealand groups amounted to ill-founded hysteria.

The safety of irradiation has always been fiercely contested. In the United States the Food And Drug Administration allows irradiation, despite surveys which consistently show over 70 per cent of US consumers do not want it. The jury is permanently out on the safety of irradiation and promises to never return, and opponents point to studies which show animals fed irradiated foods have developed increased incidence of tumours, reproductive failures and kidney damage.

Advocates of the technology say the food is not made radioactive, the level of radiation the food is exposed to is minimal and for a very brief period and that it makes the food safer and fresher for longer. They say irradiated foods have been consumed by millions of people for decades with no detrimental effects.

In much the same fashion as the debate over genetic engineering, the debate over irradiation is a passionate and vigorous one. Invariably the consumer needs to make individual decisions on which camp they trust. Opponents say irradiation is a cheap and convenient alternative to safe food practices and is a big back-stop to sloppy industry standards.

Meat producers and processors in the US prefer irradiation to sterilise their food as it is a cheap option compared to cleaning up and sterilising their production systems and slowing down the rate of inspection. In the US over the last 12 years the Department of Agriculture has cut over 12,000 meat inspecting jobs and the speed in which meat is inspected in some plants has increased to five beef carcasses in one minute.

Irradiated food in New Zealand will be labelled as such so consumers can choose to reject it, however this fails to satisfy concerns that the introduction of these foods dilutes our nuclear-free commitment. Proponents of this view have a point - especially as the ten year moratorium on irradiated foods was adopted as part of the nuclear-free policy.

Our government has decided to allow irradiated foods into New Zealand with no consultation or education campaign and most New Zealanders know next to anything about it.

Whether irradiation is safe or necessary is an ongoing debate – although not here in New Zealand. What is not debatable is that the process of irradiating food has resulted in a number of serious nuclear accidents abroad.

In Georgia radioactive water from an irradiation facility leaked, causing a $30 million cleanup operation and in New Jersey radioactive water was poured into drains and emptied into public sewers.

The question of safety of irradiation is perhaps secondary to the question of whether we need it at all. The decision to introduce it into New Zealand promises to be the beginning of the debate.

ENDS

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