WHILE Australia is not a heavy user of irradiation as a food safety and biosecurity tool by world standards, the Federal Government is considering the labelling of irradiated foodstuffs as part of a broader food labelling review.
Food irradiation is used in more than 50 countries to destroy bacteria and pests and to extend the shelf life of food, providing processors with an alternative to chemical and heat treatments. Some users say it can extend shelf-life in ground beef up to 24 days.
Unlike the United States, the European Union, Canada, China, Indonesia and other countries that permit irradiation of red meat products for microbial decontamination, the technology’s use in Australia is currently restricted to a narrow band of foodstuffs including herbs and spices, herbal teas and some fruits and vegetables, mostly imported.
Government, through Food Standards Australia New Zealand, is seeking consultation on the identification of such products, potentially using this symbol.
“It’s important to note that no change to requirements is being proposed at this stage,” FSANZ chief executive officer Steve McCutcheon said.
“FSANZ is seeking submissions on a range of technical and economic issues related to the mandatory requirements and how information about food irradiation is communicated to consumers,” he said.
A survey in 2005 showed a total of 405,000 tonnes of food was irradiated world-wide, but this estimate was generally regarded as being conservative, as many companies and jurisdictions did not fully reveal the amounts treated for commercial reasons.
The quantity of food treated has grown since 2005 due to the increase in the number of food irradiation facilities in China and Asia generally.
The US is the second largest user of food irradiation by volume, after China. Thousands of US retail outlets have been selling irradiated foods, including meat (mostly ground), for a decade or more.
Since 2000, following the notorious Jack-in-the-Box eColi episode, the US has been retailing irradiated minced beef, chicken and fresh fruits in significant quantities and about 70-80,000 tonnes of herbs, spices and condiments are also treated.
In general, consumer responses towards the irradiation of food are not dissimilar to the responses to other new food technologies, for example genetically modified foods and nanotechnology, government discussion papers suggest.
These have been characterised as one of ‘wariness, unease, uncertainty, and sometimes outright negativity’. While the use of particular technologies may be new to consumers, the pattern of response is not new. Consumer and public response to the initial introduction of now widely used and accepted food technologies are similar to the contemporary response to new food technologies as the initial public opposition to canning and pasteurisation attest.
The irradiation process has been examined closely thoroughly by the World Health Organisation, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, the European Community Scientific Committee for Food, and the US Food and Drug Administration. All found the technology to be safe and effective.
How is food irradiated?
The food is exposed to ionising radiation, either from gamma rays or a high-energy electron beam or powerful x-rays. Gamma rays and x-rays are a form of radiation that share some characteristics with microwaves, but with much highe