Search 
Text larger | smaller
The Food Magazine - Click to return to the home page

Food Irradiation campaign logoFood Irradiation Network Updates

Network update November 2003

General campaign update

Dear Friends,
As you may recall, a vote in Brussels by Members of the European Parliament in December 2002 opposed the proposed expansion of the list of foods authorised for irradiation in the EU. However, despite ongoing opposition from most EU members states, the European Commission, consumer organisations and some food industry groups, this summer Codex voted to weaken the International Food Irradiation Standard by allowing foods to be irradiated at doses above 10 kGy.

Since these two major developments, there has been little or no further legislative activity on this issue in the UK, the EU or at Codex level. We continue to await announcement of a date for the Council of the European Union to discuss finalisation of the EU list of foods permitted for irradiation. Once a date has been set for this debate, we will be lobbying UK and other EU states' ministers to oppose expansion of the list.

Our main activities over recent months have consisted of:

  • UK Food Standards Agency Food Irradiation Scientific Review Panel
    We joined this panel in order to help assess the quality and appropriateness of the food irradiation scientific research programme of the UK Government. Much of the UK Government's research conducted until now has involved development and testing of irradiated food detection methods. This work has now mostly been completed, and future research will focus more on irradiated food detection surveys and enforcement, which we strongly support. The Food Standards Agency is currently involved in a follow-up survey in co-operation with local authorities to assess whether the retailers of dietary supplements in the UK have stopped selling irradiated unlabelled dietary supplements. If they find that companies are still failing to comply, further enforcement action is planned by the FSA. We will keep the Food Irradiation Network informed of developments.
  • Information services / web development
    We have continued to provide information on irradiation to UK and overseas enquirers, particularly with regard to conducting of detection surveys. We are also helping Active Consumers Denmark to develop a dedicated Food Irradiation Campaign website to enable relevant information to be more easily available, and to allow campaign activities in different countries to be presented in one common website.
  • Monitoring of developments
    We continue to monitor international developments relating to food irradiation, in terms of industry activity and campaign actions.
    back to top

Irradiated food remains unpopular among consumers and food retailers within the UK, as in most EU member states. No labelled irradiated foods are available in shops in the UK. The small number of irradiated food products that are on sale in the UK are unlabelled and therefore illegal, hence our focus on encouraging regular detection surveys to be conducted by the Food Standards Agency and by similar government departments in other EU states, as well as by consumer groups such as Test Aankoop / Test Achats in Belgium.

Test Achats is planning a co-ordinated detection survey of possibly irradiated foods in Belgium, Italy, Spain and Portugal. We await a report on the progress and findings of this survey.

Finally, I will be going on maternity leave next week. For specific enquiries relating to the Food Irradiation Campaign please contact Kath Dalmeny at the Food Commission on 020 7837 2250, or email kath@foodcomm.org.uk

Wishing you all a very happy non-irradiated Christmas and New Year!

Merav Shub, The Food Commission

Below are some updates on developments in Australia and the Philippines in recent months.

Network update November 2003

Australian irradiation campaigners go on hunger strike

In late July 2003 a group of Australian anti-food irradiation campaigners began a Fast Against Food Irradiation. The Fast was triggered when campaigners learned that the first shipment of radioactive Cobalt 60 rods - the nuclear material used to irradiate food - had been secretly transported to Steritech's new nuclear irradiation facility in the Narangba Industrial Estate at Deception Bay, just north of Brisbane. Currently, herbs, spices, herbal teas and tropical fruits are allowed to be irradiated at the plant.

The fasters travelled from Canberra to Brisbane, visiting Steritech's two other nuclear facilities in Dandenong, Victoria and Wetherill Park, New South Wales, along the way. Their aim was to raise public awareness of the risk to the Australian food supply, as well as to local residents of Narangba, some of whom live just 500 metres from this now active nuclear facility.

Putting their health on the line, the campaigners were determined to maintain their fast until Australia's Federal Government initiated inquiries into both the health effects of consuming irradiated food and 'therapeutic goods', and the motivation and timing of the approvals for food irradiation in Australia. But as they approached Day 19 of their fast, weakness and ill-health forced several of the original fasters to withdraw. However three remained determined to continue.

On Monday 11th August, Day 19 of the fast, they took their message to Queensland Premier Peter Beattie. When in opposition, Peter Beattie supported the campaign against food irradiation. The current Labor Party platform clearly states that "Labor will: prohibit the establishment of nuclear irradiation plants". Even recently, Premier Beattie has repeated that he would not feed his own children irradiated food - yet it would seem that he is happy to feed it to others.

The campaigners are calling on the Beattie Government to acknowledge responsibility both for development of the nuclear industry in their region and for the start of full-scale food irradiation in Australia. They are calling on the Government to take immediate action to stop this process.

Note: Steritech is the only commercial irradiation company in Australia. Steritech recently obtained Australia's first ever approval to irradiate food, ending the moratorium and opening the door for the expansion of the food irradiation industry in Australia, and for the import and export of irradiated food.

Two grassroots organizations in Australia and the US have now declared 23 November as International Stop Food Irradiation Day. There will be protests in both Australia and the USA at irradiation facilities.

Irradiation coming to the Philippines

The Philippines are hoping for a US$10 million stand alone grant from the US for setting up a comprehensive irradiation facility. The facility, if approved by the US, will allow the Philippines agriculture sector to conduct irradiation treatment of fruit and vegetables, a phytosanitary measure required by the US in exporting commodities to their ports. This will mean greater market access for the country's fruit and vegetables, especially Philippine mangoes, which have seen a growing demand among US consumers.

SureBeam Corporation, the American irradiation company based in California that lobbied for the US government's approval of the irradiation method, has recently been active in the Philippines. SureBeam has been negotiating with two local agribusiness companies to build an irradiation facility. The plant will possibly be located near Manila, and will cost at least US$5 million.

Network update January 2003

European Parliament votes against more food irradiation

We ended 2002 on a high note, with the successful outcome of the European Parliament vote in Strasbourg on 17 December. To the great relief of all concerned about food irradiation, the Members of the European Parliament sent a clear message against allowing more foods to be irradiated in the EU.

Despite strong support from the pro-irradiation industry, and following months of lobbying led by the Food Irradiation Campaign, an amendment recommending that several more foods be added to the EU-wide list of foods authorised for irradiation was overturned by 269 votes to 180. Opposition to extension of the list came from across the political spectrum but included in particular the Greens, Socialists and Liberals.

Our thanks go to all supporters of the campaign who sent or co-signed letters to their MEPs voicing their opposition and pointing out the concerns of consumers, retailers and many food industry bodies. This greatly strengthened our efforts in Brussels, which involved meetings with MEPs and distributing pamphlets expressing the consumer views on irradiation. The successful outcome of the vote was in spite of the lobbying efforts of the well-funded International Association of Industrial Irradiation, which hired professional lobbying consultants to fax voting recommendations to MEPs, and to distribute pro-irradiation materials.

Among other points, the MEPs voted in favour of:

  • better controls of irradiated food;
  • more monitoring and enforcement of illegal irradiation;
  • more research into the long-term health impacts of eating a diet of irradiated foods;
  • research which bases its assessment of the safety of consuming irradiated foods on the risks to children's rather than adult's health, as children are more sensitive;
  • research into the health and safety implications for workers involved in irradiating food.

Though the vote was a victory for consumers, this battle is not yet won. The EU Council, made up of ministers from each member state, must now present its views. A date has not yet been set, but we shall be following closely and presenting our concerns to ministers in the run-up to the Council meeting.

We need the Council to agree with the view taken by the Parliament, as this would almost certainly mean that no more foods would be added to the list for the foreseeable future. Those member states who currently have several foods authorised for irradiation (Belgium, France, Italy, the Netherlands and the UK) would then have to reduce their lists in line with the EU, to allow just herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings to be irradiated.

Network update November 2002

Environment Committee votes on Food Irradiation

The Committee on Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy voted on the Breyer report on Tuesday 5 November 2002. Some very good points in the report were adopted as well as some excellent amendments . Among other points, the MEPs have supported:

  • better controls of irradiated food;
  • more monitoring and enforcement of illegal irradiation;
  • more research into the long-term health impacts of eating a diet of irradiated foods;
  • research which bases its assessment of the safety of consuming irradiated foods on the risks to children's rather than adult's health, as children are more sensitive;
  • research into the health and safety implications for workers involved in irradiating food.

However the Committee did not provide a clear direction for finalising the Community list of foods authorised for treatment with ionising radiation. The adoption of a number of contradictory amendments on this point indicates confusion.

Paragraph 2 of the original report stated that the Committee:

Welcomes the Commission's suggestion that the current list be regarded as complete and requests that this be accepted so only herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings are permitted for irradiation in the EU;

Three amendments to Paragraph 2 were adopted. First was Amendment 17, submitted by UK MEP John Bowis (PPE/DE - Democrats/Conservatives) which makes the following changes to Paragraph 2:

Notes the Commission's suggestion that the current list could be regarded as complete and believes that any additions to herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings are only be permitted for irradiation in the EU as and when scientific knowledge suggests it is safe and efficacious to do so;

Then came Amendment 18, submitted by French MEP Françoise Grossetête (PPE/DE - Democrats/Conservatives), offering a complete replacement of Paragraph 2:

Notes with interest the second option envisaged by the Commission in its communication, namely that the products which are irradiated in some Member States in substantial amounts should be included on the positive list, provided this technology can improve the safety of certain products;

Amendment 20, submitted by UK MEP Philip Whitehead (PSE - European Socialists/Labour), also suggests a complete replacement for Paragraph 2:

Insists that before any proposal is submitted to add foodstuffs to the positive list (pursuant to Directive 1999/2/EC) a detailed analysis must be carried out on each foodstuff, with evidence given to demonstrate that each of the conditions for authorising food irradiation in Annex I of Directive 1999/2/EC are clearly met;

This result is confusing. Amendment 17, 18 and 20 were all suggested as alternatives for Paragraph 2, yet all were adopted, and make the new version of the report contradictory. It is this version which the plenary of the European Parliament will vote on in mid-December (16-19 December 2002).

Amendment 18 is of greatest concern, in that it suggests that the following foods should be added to the approved list: chicken offal, egg white, peeled shrimps, frog legs, deep frozen aromatic herbs, dried fruit, cereal flakes and germs, and gum arabic (additive).

This Amendment should be opposed by MEPs in mid-December, as allowing these foods onto the list at this stage would open the floodgates for food irradiation in Europe. This technology should clearly be treated with caution, and should not receive blanket approvals in the EU at this stage, and certainly not before the other requirements of the Breyer report have been fulfilled.

The lobby of MEPs will continue, leading up to the mid-December vote.

Network update September 2002

Lobby of Environment Committee of the European Parliament

Background
In August 2001, the Commission forwarded to Parliament a communication on foods and food ingredients authorised for treatment with ionising radiation in the Community (see http://europa.eu.int/comm/food/fs/sfp/fi_index_en.html ).

In January 2002 the President of Parliament announced that he had referred the communication to the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy (commonly known as the 'Environment Committee') as the committee responsible and the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy for its opinion.

In November 2001, the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy had appointed Hiltrud Breyer MEP as the rapporteur - the person responsible for drafting the report on food irradiation and completion of the Community list. Later in November 2001 the Committee on Industry, External Trade, Research and Energy decided not to deliver an opinion.

The key recommendations of Hiltrud Breyer's report were:

  • no more foods should be added to the Community list of foods authorised for irradiation;
  • better controls and enforcement of irradiated foods, particularly illegal, unlabelled irradiated foods, should be implemented, such as annual testing programmes by member states;
  • more research and development of alternative approaches and technologies should be done;
  • more research into the long-term health effects of eating a diet composed of irradiated foods, particularly on children, should be carried out before any more foods are added to the list.

Debate of the Breyer Report by the Environment Committee - 11 September 2002:

The Food Irradiation Campaign attended the debate of the Environment Committee, during which a wide variety of comments were made by MEPs, some supporting certain statements of the report and others objecting to certain statements. Some comments called for more information to back up the report. In summary the key points raised by MEPs were as follows:

  • 'The report is one-sided, for example it does not mention that the WHO encourages the use of the irradiation process in order to reduce the incidence of food poisoning, or that it is used to sterilise hospital food for the benefit of some patients' - Dr Caroline Jackson, MEP, UK and Chair of the Environment Committee
  • 'This is all about human health. The scientific community says food irradiation is safe if carried out correctly. We should not get rid of the technology just because the legislation is violated, instead we should improve controls' - Françoise Grossetête, MEP, France
  • 'The suggestion in the report that food irradiation undermines sustainability is irrelevant' - Françoise Grossetête, MEP, France
  • 'The report poses as many questions as it answers. On the issue of long-distance transport, although there is growing interest in local food, we do have a duty to support developing countries and maintain their access to our markets' - David Bowis, MEP, UK
  • 'The possibility that additional foods such as prawns and shrimps may be added to the Community list is quite alarming' and 'accurate labelling and over-coming illegal irradiation is what we should be most concerned about' - Phillip Whitehead, MEP, UK
  • We're not debating whether food irradiation is good or bad, but whether more foods should be added to the list. There is no need to do this as the technology is clearly not relevant. The real issue is labelling, and adequate controls. One should not allow widescale use of something that cannot be controlled' - Paul Lannoye, MEP - Belgium
  • If Option 1 were chosen (ie to add several additional food categories to the list) how would the European Commission suggest we police this?' - Dr Caroline Jackson, MEP, UK and Chair of the Environment Committee
  • 'Suggesting that food irradiation is dangerous because of the risks of terrorists stealing the radioactive materials to make dirty bombs is alarmist and extreme' - Phillip Whitehead, MEP, UK and John Bowis, MEP, UK
    back to top

Mrs Testori, of the European Commission explained:

  • Production of prawns, shrimps and frogs legs may be inherently unhygienic, eg peeled shrimps are being exported to developing countries for peeling - as labour is cheaper - and then re-imported to Europe. Hygiene standards are difficult to enforce under those circumstances.
  • The European Commission has found that the levels of control of irradiated food are very different in different member states. They will soon produce a report on this, and will work to harmonise and improve levels of control throughout the EU.

Public meeting at European Parliament on 11 September 2002, hosted by:

  • Hiltrud Breyer MEP
  • The Food Irradiation Campaign
  • Association of European Consumers (AEC)
  • Active Consumers Denmark

The meeting was held at a room in the European Parliament in Brussels at lunchtime. Illegally irradiated foods found on sale in the UK and Denmark during 2001 and 2002 were displayed, and a leaflet prepared by the Food Irradiation Campaign (The Food Commission) were provided. Merav Shub and Klaus Melvin Jensen gave brief presentations on the food irradiation situations in the UK and Denmark, and on implications for consumers in other member states, and answered questions.

Meeting participants:
1. Merav Shub, The Food Irradiation Campaign (The Food Commission)
2. Kath Dalmeny, The Food Commission
3. Ceri Lewis, Association of European Consumers (AEC)
4. Brigid Gavin, Adviser to Association of European Consumers (AEC)
5. Jeppe Juul, Active Consumers Denmark
6. Klaus Melvin Jensen, Active Consumers Denmark
------------------------
7. Dr Caroline Jackson, MEP - UK (PPE -DE - Conservative), Chair of Environment Committee
8. Hiltrud Breyer, MEP - Germany (VERTS/ALE - Green), Rapporteur on Food Irradiation
9. Paul Lannoye, MEP - Belgium (VERTS/ALE)
10. Ulla Sandbæk, MEP, Denmark (EDD - Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities)
11. Wim Kersten
------------------------
12. Assistant to Hiltrud Breyer, MEP, Germany (VERTS/ALE), Rapporteur - Sara Wild
13. Assistant to Phillip Whitehead, MEP, UK (PSE - Socialist), Shadow Rapporteur - Michelle Smyth
14. Assistant to Anneli Hulthén, MEP, Sweden (PSE), Vice Chair of Environment Committee - Patricia Widergren
15. Asstistant to John Bowis, MEP, UK (PPE-DE) - Stuart Pritchard
16. Assistant to Paul Lannoye, MEP, Belgium (VERTS/ALE) - A. Leens
17. Assistant to Ulla Sandbaek, MEP, Denmark (EDD) - Gitte Skuldbol
18. Assistant to Niels Busk, MEP, Denmark (ELDR - Liberal) - Maria Skipper
-------------------------
19. Oliver Emmes, Advisor to the Greens on food quality and food safety
-------------------------
20. Katie Carson, Confédération des industries Agro-Alimentaires de l'EU (CIAA)
-------------------------

Individual meetings were held in Brussels with:

- Hiltrud Breyer, MEP - Germany
- Pernille Frahm, MEP - Denmark
- Torben Lund, MEP - Denmark
- Jonas Sjöstedt, MEP - Sweden
- John Bowis, MEP - UK
- Philip Whitehead, MEP - UK
- Oliver Emmes, Adviser to the Greens on Food Quality and Food Safety
- Axel Singhofen, Adviser to the Greens on Public Health and Consumer Policy

Other lobbying activities undertaken:

  • Prior to the Committee debate, the Food Irradiation Campaign sent a letter to every MEPs on the Environment Committee, explaining our support for certain recommendations within the Breyer report, asking for individual meetings with the most influential MEP on this issue, and inviting all MEPs to our lunch time meeting. The letter was co-signed by other organisations including Euro Coop - see attached.
  • We designed and printed a leaflet explaining the issues of concern to MEPs, and hand delivered one to the post box of each MEP at the European Parliament in Brussels - see attached.
  • We made initial contact with some European journalists in preparation for a press event planned for October 2002.

Conclusion
Altogether the level of interest generated was good, as demonstrated by attendance at the lunchtime meeting. Several people praised the quality of the campaign leaflet and the good level of knowledge of the issues which the speakers displayed at the meeting. The comments expressed during the Committee debate by MEPs demonstrated that the issue remains contentious. MEPs did not make comments expressing a clear position on which, if any, foods should be added to the Community list. This suggests they are still unsure whether any should be added at this stage.

We await with interest the report of the European Commission on levels of controls of food irradiation in the Member States, and the EC recommendations for harmonisation and strengthening of these controls across the EU.

Network update May 2002

U.S. Farm Bill's Irradiation Labeling Provisions

New U.S. legislation on labeling irradiated food jeapordises consumers' right to know

Earlier this month a piece of U.S. legislation was passed that could enable food irradiation companies to start using the word 'pasteurization' on irradiated food product labels.

One provision permits the industry to request permission from the U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) to use the term 'pasteurization' on the labels of irradiated foods: if the Secretary does not respond within 120 days, the permission is granted. There is no public notice requirement, nor is any consumer input required before a decision is made.

A second provision directs the secretary of HHS to revisit the issue of food irradiation labeling through the standard regulatory process. During that process, any irradiation firm can petition the secretary to use alternative labeling terminology. The secretary has 180 days to respond. Again, there is no provision for a public notice requirement nor any opportunity for the public to comment.

Due to widespread consumer rejection of irradiated food, the irradiation industry is seeking to use euphemistic labels such as 'cold pasteurized' and 'electronically pasteurized', in the hope that this will persuade consumers to buy the food. Joan Claybrook, president of the U.S. consumer watchdog Public Citizen, commented "Food producers who use irradiation want to label their products with the word 'pasteurized' because it conjures up images of wholesome milk". American consumer focus groups have called this approach 'sneaky' and 'deceptive'.

This bow to industry lobbying threatens U.S. consumers' right to honest and accurate labeling, and may add to unresolved labeling issues in trade with European countries. In Europe, all foods intended for consumers and caterers must be labeled as either 'irradiated' or 'treated with ionizing radiation,' whether they are whole foods or ingredients, even if they constitute less than 25 percent of the finished product. In contrast, U.S. regulations require only irradiated foods sold in shops to be labeled, although spices are exempt.

The threat to consumers' right to know extends far beyond the U.S. Unlabeled irradiated food imported from the United States has been found in European supermarkets over the past year, resulting in some U.S. products being pulled from shop shelves. In Denmark, a dry guacamole mix imported from the US was recently found to contain irradiated ingredients but was not labeled as irradiated. The product was subsequently pulled from all Danish supermarkets for violating domestic labeling laws.

"With the new U.S. Farm Bill causing confusion about the labeling of irradiated products, we strongly fear that there will be more cases of illegal irradiated U.S. food in Danish supermarkets, and that could seriously harm Danish consumer confidence in U.S. produced food," said Klaus Melvin Jensen, campaign manager of Active Consumers Denmark, which exposed the illegal product. Last summer a Food Irradiation Campaign product survey also
found numerous unlabeled irradiated products on sale in the United Kingdom, including U.S. products such as ginseng health supplements.

Pasteurization uses rapid heating and cooling to partially sterilize liquid products, namely milk. Irradiation is a very different process, using gamma rays, X-rays or accelerated electrons to treat food for purposes such as delaying ripening and sprouting, destroying spoilage organisms and food-poisoning bacteria, and eliminating insects. The process can destroy important nutrients, produce chemical byproducts in food - some of which may have carcinogenic or mutagenic effects, and entails a wide range of other serious concerns for consumers, workers and the environment.

The use of the term 'pasteurization' in irradiated food labels runs counter to the official U.S. position on labeling of export products. In a discussion paper on misleading food labels, the U.S. delegation to the Codex Committee on Food Labeling, an international food-standard setting body, wrote, "Confusion often occurs because a promotional communication uses a word, phrase, symbol or image that is similar to a more familiar word, phrase, symbol or image, but that does not have a similar meaning. This may be of particular concern when labels are translated or a product is exported."

Network update May 2002

UK supermarkets reject irradiation

Public pressure is keeping irradiated foods off supermarket shelves

While doubts remain about the benefits and concerns persist about the dangers of irradiated food, UK consumers continue to send the clear signal to food manufacturers and retailers that they don't like the technology and they won't buy food treated with it. Supermarkets know that the market for irradiated food is almost non-existent.

Those promoting the use of irradiation for food are trying to get the rules on irradiation labelling abolished, or to get the process re-named as 'electronic pasteurisation' or 'cold pasteurisation'. One way consumers can ensure that these sneaky methods don't succeed is to call on supermarkets to publish their policies on food irradiation. Supermarkets know that if they let irradiated food sneak onto their shelves, they would lose customers. After all, supermarkets sell more than two thirds of all food that is consumed in the UK.

In February The Food Irradiation Campaign conducted a survey of the nine major UK supermarkets to find out their policies on irradiated food. All of them replied that their policy was not to stock irradiated products. We asked them how they check that their standards are maintained. This is what they told us:

Asda
Does not stock irradiated products.
Asda says it makes its policy clear to suppliers, and relies on suppliers to check their products. Their policy depends on customer feedback rather than on government legislation.

Co-operative group
Does not sell any irradiated food and its brand specifications prohibit the use of irradiated ingredients. The Co-op sends samples for laboratory testing. They state: 'We are committed to full ingredient labelling and support the view that any irradiated ingredients should be labelled irrespective of the level, so the consumer can choose.'

Iceland
Does not stock irradiated products.
Iceland states that all suppliers for Iceland own-label products go through a stringent approval and monitoring procedure.

Safeway
Does not stock irradiated products.
Safeway states that it sends samples for laboratory testing, and that they are in favour of labelling of irradiated products.

Sainsbury's
Does not stock irradiated products.
They said: 'We don't sell irradiated products because our customers don't want them.'
Sainsbury's monitors its products by sending samples for laboratory testing, and relying on the surveillance carried out by the suppliers of high risk products such as prawns and spices.

Marks and Spencer
Does not stock irradiated products.
M&S told us: 'The source and standard of all Marks & Spencer products and ingredients are specified to the manufacturer and are audited by Marks & Spencer technologists.'

Somerfield
Does not use irradiated ingredients in Somerfield own-brand products.
Somerfield sends its samples for laboratory testing, carries out surveys on 'high risk' own-label products, and have made their suppliers aware of their policy.

Tesco
Policy is not to stock irradiated foods.
They told us: 'Tesco is a customer focused business and our policy is not to stock irradiated foods or food products containing irradiated ingredients. '

Waitrose
Does not use irradiated ingredients in Waitrose own-brand products.
Waitrose sends samples for laboratory testing. Their policy states that 'suppliers shall ensure that a suitable traceability system is in place to ensure that Waitrose product is not irradiated, and details of the system and any results obtained shall be made available to Waitrose.'

Network update March 2002

Revised Draft Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods

Developments at the 34th session of the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC) - 11th-15th March 2002

Earlier this month the 34th session of the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC) took place in Rotterdam. (Though not exactly an additive or a contaminant, food irradiation can cause certain chemical by-products to be produced in food, and the technology therefore falls within the remit of the CCFAC).

Each year at this week-long international meeting, various proposals relating to international standards governing food additives and contaminants are discussed. If agreement is reached, these proposals progress through a series of steps until they are finally adopted. Depending on the level of consensus among delegates, or on what new scientific data emerges, proposals are passed through the steps either quickly, slowly, or in some cases they are even moved backwards.

This year the conference room was packed. Forty-eight national governments from all parts of the globe were represented, plus an equal number of non-governmental observers, including international agencies such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), food industry associations and three international consumer organisations, namely Consumers International (CI), the International Association of Consumer Food Groups (IACFO) and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

Three international consumer groups is an unusually large number for this committee meeting. In recent years, limited resources have meant that only CI have managed to send a delegate regularly. Such under-representation at CCFAC remains a serious concern for consumers.

A particularly contentious agenda item was the proposed draft revision to the Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods. The present standard sets a maximum average irradiation dose level of 10 kilo Gray (kGy) which applies to all foods. (10 kGy is equivalent to about 100 million times the dose received during a hospital chest x-ray). The proposed revision would remove this maximum dose limit.

Some delegations, including the WHO, the Philippines, the USA and Australia, expressed their support for this. They argued that, since bodies such as the WHO have declared irradiated food to be safe and nutritionally adequate after exposure to any dose necessary, the current limit of 10 kGy has become redundant.

However, the delegation from Spain, speaking on behalf of the EC, and supported by Germany, Poland, Sweden and Consumers International, argued that the limit should not be removed.

Preliminary findings of a recent study carried out in Germany suggest that certain chemical by-products formed in food that has been irradiated, known as cyclobutanones, could be toxic enough to cause significant DNA damage, potentially leading to carcinogenic or mutagenic effects. These chemicals have yet to be found in any non-irradiated foods. They therefore require considerable study in order to determine their safety.

Sweden pointed out that there is a lack of evidence of any actual need to irradiate foods at doses higher than 10 kGy. Only the Australian delegation countered this argument, stating that New Zealand had recently approved the irradiation of herbs and spices at 20 kGy. Consumers International called for more evidence to be presented demonstrating whether or not any country needs to use higher dose levels.

The Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) - which advises the European Commission - is currently reviewing the cyclobutanone study. The SCF had not made its recommendation on the implications for safety prior to the CCFAC meeting. This presented an obstacle to progress. In addition, time constraints meant that the large number of diverse written comments submitted by delegates before the meeting could not be dealt with properly in the time allowed. The result: postponement of any decision on the 10 kGy limit until next year.

It was agreed that over the next few months a working group will have the task of re-drafting the current food irradiation standard based on the comments received. This group is to be led by the Philippines and includes Argentina, Australia, China, France, Germany, India, Japan, Korea, Poland, Sweden, Thailand, UK, USA, EC, Consumers International, the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (ICGFI), the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the WHO. The re-drafted standard will be presented for comment and approval at the 35th CCFAC meeting in the Netherlands next year.

Much now hangs on the SCF's assessment of the cyclobutanone study. The WHO delegate stated that the WHO is prepared to take into consideration any safety risks discovered…yet he also commented that the method used in the cyclobutanone study (comet assay) was not one in which the WHO has much confidence.

It is possible that this study and any recommendations based upon it will simply lead to differing interpretations and further conflict. Calls by food industry and consumer groups such as the Food Commission to take into account broader concerns, such as the potential for misuse of food irradiation to mask poor hygiene and contaminated food, were not considered at the CCFAC meeting.

As with many Codex issues, a narrow focus on lab-based scientific data dominated the short time spent discussing food irradiation. In this case the result is more delay: another year to keep on raising consumer concerns, another chance to challenge the ill-advised weakening of the world's food irradiation regulations.

Network update January 2002

Food Irradiation - International Developments in 2001

International legislative developments
During the summer, the European Commission announced a delay in extending its list of foods permitted for irradiation. According to an EC communication there is even the possibility that the list will not be extended at all. This decision was made in response to the doubts expressed by European consumer and food industry groups over whether there really are clear benefits or genuine technological needs for irradiating food.

Whilst this is a positive development for consumer groups, the fear is that continuing pressure from the irradiation industry and from legislators outside Europe will nevertheless bring about the widespread proliferation of the technology. A proposal to amend the international Codex standard governing food irradiation, including a removal of the current maximum irradiation dose limit and the weakening of several other aspects of the standard, is still in progress. The annual CCFAC (Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants) meeting in Rotterdam in March 2002 will attempt to make progress on this proposal. Consumer groups will be attending and voicing their opposition.

News from the United States
In recent months the promotion and test marketing of irradiated foods in the United States has continued. Some companies have persisted in avoiding the use of the term 'irradiated'. Among these was SureBeam, the San Diego-based affiliate of defence contractors Titan Corporation. SureBeam continued to call their irradiation process 'electronic pasteurization' even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially considers this phrase 'misleading.' The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) started an inquiry into the companies' advertising practices, following a complaint filed by Public Citizen, the consumer advocacy group, in August 2001. The FTC asked two other companies, Omaha Steaks and Huisken Meats, to change their websites and promotional material to remove terms such as 'pasteurized' and to include 'irradiation.' These two companies promptly responded.

As well as promoting food irradiation within the US, SureBeam is expanding its operations internationally to Brazil, Saudi Arabia and other countries.

News from Australia
The lifting of Australia's 10-year ban on food irradiation seems to have opened the floodgates. In September 2001 the first authorisation to irradiate was given by the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council. The approval was for herbs, spices and herbal infusions.

Following this, the American electronic irradiation company, Surebeam Australia Pty Ltd, made an application to irradiate tropical fruit (breadfruit, carambola, custard apple, litchi, longan, mango, mangosteen, papaya and rambutan) as a treatment against fruit fly and other quarantine pests. These irradiated fruits would be destined for export to the United States, New Zealand, Japan and countries in Europe, as well as for sale within Australia. Meanwhile Steritech, the only commercial irradiation company in Australia, plans to build a nuclear irradiation plant in Narangba near Brisbane, Queensland, in the heart of a large fruit-growing area.

The federal minister has already given the go-ahead for the site to be used for this purpose. These developments have met with growing opposition from the Australian public, and Australian food irradiation campaigners have stepped up their activities.