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Good food doesn't need irradiating

By Martin Frid, AEC

On July 18, a large number of consumer activists met in London to discuss food irradiation. The meeting was organised by The Food Commission, an independent NGO well known for its campaigns for high food standards. Food irradiation is re-emerging as a serious cause for concern for European consumers. It is promoted by the food industry and some scientists as a means of killing harmful microorganisms which contaminate food. Often, consumers are left wondering who is supposed to benefit from the treatment. If shelf life is extended, because irradiated foods do not spoil quickly, as scientists say, will consumers really get healthy, fresh, natural food?

At the campaign meeting, it was pointed out that concerns about long-term health impacts of eating irradiated foods have never been resolved. It is a well-known fact that irradiation results in loss of nutritients as well as creation of food toxins and free radicals, that may cause cancer. The problem is that international agencies will not re-open the investigation of older studies that may be flawed. Much of the work done by the UN joint expert committee has not been peer-reviewed or published properly. Oversimplification of scientific evidence does not convince consumers that this is safe enough. However, there are many other aspects that also worry us.

Clearly, if food irradiation is used, foods will be stored and transported further, from wherever it is cheapest, benefiting the transnational food corporations. Family farmers will find it even harder to sell on a market with thousands of irradiated foods, especially if labelling rules are not enforced. Sustainable agriculture and rural development, which means farmers actually produce safe food, will not be possible as huge industry farms with low hygiene standards can simply "zap" their products and sell at a low price. Quality will be ignored as illegally irradiated foods enter the shelves of food shops. For those who eat at restaruants, it will be impossible to know if the food on the menue has been irradiated or not.

Currently, the European Union only allows spices and herbs to be irradiated, and labelling is mandatory. However, several member states allow many foods to be irradiated. In order to harmonise legislation, the European Commission has proposed a system with a positive list of foods that can be irradiated. This legislation is still only at the draft stage. In the U.S. the food industry is moving very quickly to irradiate a large amount of foods, even for exports. We may face another trade war between Europe and other countries if we try to stop for example American foods from entering our continent because of worries about food irradiaiton. For consumers, the ethical dilemma is also becoming obvious: it is impossible to imagine that the 6 billion people on Earth will cope with an industrialised fast-food mentality, that produces more and more contaminated food that must be irradiated.

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