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    Irradiation - whitewashing food problems

    By Alison White

    Imported tropical fruit coming into New Zealand may end up being irradiated, if the Australia & New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) allow an application and the Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry (MAF) permit access into New Zealand. An Australian firm dealing in tropical fruits wants to use electron beams and x-rays, instead of chemical fumigants, to get rid of pests.

    A ban on the controversial treatment was lifted two years ago but with the stipulation that applications for the importation of irradiated foods would be reviewed on a case by case basis. What is happening now is that food importers and processors are attempting a gradual, incremental increase in the number of foods that can be irradiated. First it was spices and herbs, now it is tropical fruits. This application for tropical fruits is also unique in that it is the first time in NZ that it has been proposed to use irradiation as a phytosanitary measure - as a quarantine measure.

    More than 14 years ago in 1987 a proposal by an Australian firm Steritech to set up an irradiation plant in Auckland prompted masses of public submissions against it and led to its withdrawal. And in 1988 a Ministry for the Environment working party recommended prohibition of the treatment.

    Two months ago ANZFA approved an application from Steritech to irradiate herbs, spices and herbal infusions. However, Dr Glenn Stanley, an ANZFA toxicologist, said no food and spice manufacturers were yet using irradiation in either country because of consumer resistance.

    We have a copy of a letter from Cerebos Gregg which states, "I am pleased to advise that Cerebos Gregg's do not use irradiated ingredients in any of our products. We have recently confirmed this by obtaining written assurances from the suppliers of every ingredient or food that we use."

    What is wrong with irradiation?
    Briefly, there are both microbiological and toxicity concerns. There have been no long term studies on the effects of a diet of irradiated food on humans, for example. Also, there are some fruitfly larvae that could remain fertile after being irradiated, with serious biosecurity consequences for New Zealand. Irradiation, far from being a panacea for bacterial and viral problems, can be used to disguise unacceptable levels of hygiene during the production, processing and handling of food.

    It has been clearly established that irradiation does severe damage to most vitamins in food, particularly vitamins A, C, D, E and K, and some of the B vitamins such as B1, B2, B3, B6 and B12 are also affected. There are large areas of scientific uncertainty regarding chemicals that could be created by the irradiation (so-called radiolytic products) and the long term effects of these on humans. Evidence from animal feeding trials suggests possible adverse effects including low birth weights and reproductive effects such as miscarriages, lower growth rates, heart lesions and problems with blood clotting, increased incidence of tumours, lowered immune response.

    A recent German study reveals that a chemical formed in irradiated food can damage DNA. The chemical, known as 2-DCB, caused "significant DNA damage" in the colons of rats that ate the substance. The study was carried out at the Federal Research Centre for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, Germany, co-funded by the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation, a United Nations-sponsored organization that promotes food irradiation worldwide. (, March 2001)

    There is currently no easy way to detect if food has been irradiated, how many times it may have been irradiated and at what level. Because of this problem of monitoring and verification, consumers right to choose not to eat irradiated food can be eroded.

    Irradiation does not ensure safe food. Although it kills most bacteria it does not destroy the toxins created in the early stages of contamination and it actually stimulates the production of aflatoxin. Irradiation also kills the beneficial bacteria which produce odours indicating spoilage and which work to naturally control the growth of harmful bacteria. Irradiation is totally ineffective against viruses.

    Irradiation is an "end of the pipe" technology of the very worst sort. It does nothing to address the real problems of sloppy food handling procedures and lax hygiene. Quite the reverse, it actually encourages an attitude of "dont worry, any problems well just nuke it".

    There are viable alternatives to irradiation, both for the treatment of contaminated food and as a quarantine measures. These include heat treatments, the use of ozone at low concentrations, cold treatments, controlling the atmosphere of the shipping containers (C02 or Nitrogen is kept high and O2 is kept low).

    We do not believe permitting food to be irradiated will benefit the consumer.

    Sources: James Gardiner: Alarm at plans to zap fruit imports, Weekend Herald 10 November 2001; Irradiation - whitewashing food problems? The Australian Food Inspector vol 16 No 3 June 1993; Mike Ennis and Bob Tait.

    Further information

    1. Sustainable Wellington Net website has info on recent campaigns against irradiation in NZ
      There are also some useful links here too.
    2. The Pure Food organisation in the US has a wealth on info on their website
    3. For info on alternatives to irradiation check out
    4. A really excellent book is "Biology of Food Irradiation" by David Murray. 1990, Research Studies Press Ltd. Taunton, Somerset, England


    • Write to ANZFA and the Ministry of Health expressing your disapproval of allowing food to be irradiated.
    • Ask ANZFA for a clear statement on the labelling requirements for irradiated food.
    • Ask food manufacturers what their policy is on using irradiated food. Report any results to us.
    • Write to supermarkets such as New World etc and tell them that you do not want irradiated food.
    • Write to MAF saying that irradiation is not a safe or acceptable phytosanitary treatment for pests such as Fruit Fly.

    Additive Watch

    Brickbats and bouquets: ice cream

    A bouquet to Thorntons ice cream:
    they use no questionable additives and moreover use organic ingredients.
    A brickbat to Signature Range ice creams:
    this comparatively new brand (from Countdown) use very questionable colourings in most of their range, including 102 and 110.

    Several brands use the yellow colourings 102 and 110 in their French Vanilla range. Read the label! 102 (Tartrazine), registered as an herbicide in the USA, has been linked in studies to ADHD, asthma rashes and it could adversely affect digestive enzymes. 110 or Sunset Yellow has been shown to affect rats kidneys. In humans it can provoke asthma, rashes, ADHD and adversely affect digestive enzymes.

    If you come across examples of products where the manufacturer has removed questionable additives or continues to use them, let us know. For a list of questionable additives, see the appendix in "Eating Safely in a Toxic World".

    What makes potatoes not sprout?

    With the warm weather in spring and early summer, potatoes, like many plants, start sprouting. You may notice, however, that the potatoes in the supermarket dont seem to sprout. The reason is that they may be dusted in propham, a herbicide and sprout suppressant.

    Propham was found in 5 out of the eight potato samples analysed in the last Ministry of Health Total Diet Survey, being in chippies, chips as well as cooked peeled and unpeeled potatoes. Earlier Total Diet Surveys consistently show levels of propham in potatoes, but the good news is that more recently these levels seem to be declining, if one can judge adequately from eight samples.

    Whats wrong with propham? Like many pesticides in current use, it doesnt have all the tests done that it should have, and so no official Acceptable Daily Intake can be calculated. No tests have been done to see whether it causes cancer, for example. Independent tests on mammals have, however, shown that propham may cause genetic damage, poison the foetus and suppress the immune system.

    So grow or buy your potatoes organically, and knock the sprouts off!

    March 2002

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