If irradiated food is glowingly good – why not label it?

Robin Taubenfeld

From Chain Reaction #122, Nov 2014, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction

Over the past two years Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) has supported a push to significantly expand the list of foods allowed to be irradiated in Australia and New Zealand. At the same time, irradiation proponents have been embarking on a cynical marketing strategy to reduce consumer resistance to irradiated food, namely, the removal of mandatory labelling requirements.

The Ministerial Forum on Food Regulation (FoFR) has now asked FSANZ to undertake a "review" of mandatory labelling requirements for irradiated food. In correspondence to Senator Nick Xenophon, Health Minister Fiona Nash states the purpose of the review is to "assess whether there are better ways to communicate the safety and benefits of irradiated food to consumers."

In December 2013 correspondence with Food Irradiation Watch, Victorian Minister for Agriculture and Food Safety Peter Walsh stated: "The review has been requested to assess whether this is a more effective approach to communicate the safety and benefits of irradiation to consumers. The FoFR noted that improving consumer confidence in irradiation will reduce disincentives for increased uptake and broader application of the technology by industry."

The words are telling. Since the lifting of a hard-won 10-year moratorium on irradiation that lasted until 1999, FSANZ has been taking up the gauntlet as an irradiation promoter rather than a non-biased adjudicator. Now, labelling has been identified as an impediment to "uptake" of the technology.

Despite FSANZ's support, however, numerous scientific reports question the safety or wholesomeness of irradiated food. At best, scientific opinion around irradiation remains divided. There is no data to support the claim that irradiated food has been proven safe, as no long-term studies of human consumption of irradiated food have been carried out.

The Australian and New Zealand public have demonstrable, known and legitimate concerns about irradiation. In recent polling in New Zealand − where irradiated Australian produce is being marketed – 72% of respondents expressed concern.1 Since the lifting of the moratorium in 1999, Australians − and their counterparts overseas – have shown ongoing resistance to irradiated food which has been expressed by opposition to food irradiation applications, rejection by informed consumers of irradiated foods on the market, community campaigns to close irradiation plants, and community campaigns to support local and organic agriculture.

Research commissioned by irradiation supporters reveals little public awareness about irradiation and consumer hesitation to support it. An overview of some of the issues appeared in The Land on July 31. It clearly articulates retailers concerns about consumer perception of irradiation.

The article reveals market research into inaccurate or deceptive statements such as "cold sterilisation" which would make irradiation more palatable to the consumer. Survey results showed that even when informed, irradiation was not the preferred treatment method among consumers. The market research also found that retailers have expressed concern over public resistance to the very term 'irradiation' and a consumer backlash against irradiated products.

Paul Harker from Woolworths is quoted in The Land article: "It's going to be an extremely emotional product and we are not going to stand alone trying to convince Australian consumers that there is nothing wrong with irradiation. We've communicated that back to industry and we said unless there is a concerted campaign that is led not only by the people peddling irradiation as an alternative, but unless the government and everyone else is involved in actually talking to the customer about it, the last thing I am going to do is plonk it on my shelf because I can tell you that fresh produce sales will die. People won't shop there."

The demand for irradiated products should be driven by consumers making informed and intentional decisions to purchase such products. Irradiators who are confident that their products are wholesome, healthy and desirable should be proud to label their products irradiated and let the market play out.

With Australia and New Zealand set to dramatically increase the amount of irradiated foods available on the market and in people's diets, the push to remove mandatory labelling and signage requirements is unacceptable and must be stopped.

To find out what you can do, please visit: www.foodirradiationwatch.org


1. www.nzherald.co.nz/opinion/news/article.cfm?c_id=466&objectid=10892295

2. www.theland.com.au/news/agriculture/horticulture/general-news/irradiatio...