Would you eat red meat that had a shelf life of 21 days? How about some tasty strawberries that look as if they are fresh from the farm but are really three weeks old? Would you routinely expose your food to the most toxic and deadly military-industrial pollutant known to humanity? Would you like to help the nuclear industry dispose of its lethal wastes by accommodating a food irradiation facility in an industrial estate next to your suburb? The answer is "yes" to all of the above unless citizens take immediate and direct action to stop food irradiation.
In the 1980's the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation formed an unholy alliance with the nuclear industry, represented by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since then, the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organisation and more than 40 governments throughout the world have been working to ensure that irradiation becomes a standard food manufacturing practice throughout the world. Disposal of radioactive cobalt and cesium currently presents a considerable problem for the nuclear industry because of the quantities produced in nuclear wastes from power stations and the length of time they take to decay. The nuclear energy industry is therefore keen to find commercial uses for its deadly by-products and irradiation of food offers the 'solution'. Food irradiation means exposing the food we eat to a radioactive source at a food irradiation plant.
At the heart of the plant is a shiny rack of 400 gamma ray emitting cobalt 60 'pencils', housed in a lead chamber, surrounded by a two meter concrete wall. When not in use, the rack is submerged in a deep pool of cooled water. At the push of a button, hydraulic arms lift the cobalt rack out of its protective pool and tall metal boxes packed with food slide into the irradiation chamber on an overhead monorail. Treatment times vary. Fresh strawberries pass through in 8 minutes. Frozen chicken takes 20 minutes. Food is loaded into the irradiator on standard pallets.
In the 1980's a lengthy and protracted public debate about food irradiation occurred in Australia, resulting in a moratorium on irradiation. In 1999, the moratorium was lifted at the same time as a landmark decision about genetically modified foods was announced. The Australia New Zealand Food Authority has now accepted an application from Australian irradiation company, Steritech, to irradiate herbs, spices, teas and oilseeds for beverages. The application is currently subject to evaluation and two separate periods of public consultation are being held. The first ran from October 11 to December 6 2000. The second period for consultation is from February to March 2001.
Transnational food corporations advocate food irradiation because it extends the shelf life of their products and helps reduce spoilage by killing bacteria and insects. This enables them to source cheap food from anywhere in the global market and increases their profits. The advocates of food irradiation maintain it is necessary to 'decontaminate' (the industry term) the foods that we eat, to ensure a safe, sanitary food supply and to protect consumers from food-borne diseases. This does not address the real problems of food contamination, spoilage and infestation, which result from centralised food production and distribution systems and from dependence upon a system of food security, as opposed to food self sufficiency. It is currently illegal to sell irradiated foods in Australia, but international trade pressures from the WTO mean that it will soon be very difficult for Australia to reject the importation of irradiated food and to stop the sale of radiation treated food in our country. Food spoilage, infestation and contamination are being exacerbated by globalisation of the food supply. The response from the World Trade Organisation has been to introduce the Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures-a global standard for food 'sanitation' and 'sterilisation'. The Agreement includes irradiation as one of the standard and acceptable processes for sterilisation, sanitation and disinfestation.
The powerful propaganda of the well financed pro irradiation lobby is already widespread throughout the food industry. The conclusions are always expressed in terms of the benefits of food irradiation and the safety of irradiated foods. The uncertainties about safety never appear in the reports of the international organisations that advocate irradiation. If chemical changes are referred to at all, they are said to be 'not significant' or similar to those produced in other processing techniques. Indeed, chemical changes are similar to those produced by other processing techniques. The quantities produced, however, can be very different. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, continues to develop after irradiation. Vitamin losses, particularly A,C,D, E, K and the B are exacerbated by irradiation. When food is irradiated its molecular structure is broken down and free radicals are formed. These react with the food to create new chemical substances, called radiolytic products. Some are known carcinogens (like benzene in irradiated beef). Others are completely unique to irradiation processes and their effect on human health is unknown.
public needs more information than simply being told that irradiated food
is 'safe'. The public needs to know about
the scientific uncertainty that underlies these types of statements from
so-called expert bodies, and to be given details of the adverse effects
of irradiation that have been demonstrated in human and animal studies.