Ray-treated food on way

By Lynley Bilby

Kiwi growers say people are worried about side-effects of irradiated food from Australia

Tomato growers such as Jason Culbert are concerned about irradiated produce coming into New Zealand. Photo / Michael Craig
Tomato growers such as Jason Culbert are concerned about irradiated produce coming into New Zealand. Photo / Michael Craig

Irradiated Australian tomatoes and capsicums will arrive for the first time on shop shelves soon.

Public submissions closed last Friday, and a decision to change import health standards to allow the irradiated produce, to prevent the spread of Queensland fruit fly, is expected early next month.

The Ministry for Primary Industries says all irradiated produce must be clearly labelled, whether it is a whole vegetable or a slice of tomato in pizza or a burger.

Horticulture NZ chief executive Peter Silcock says irradiated food is a concern for consumers.

"The primary concern is what impact has radiation had on the product and what impact will it have on my body when I eat it."

Four years ago, the Australian Government banned irradiated cat food when animals developed neurological defects after being fed high-dose gamma-irradiated food.

The European Food Safety Authority is investigating the safety of irradiated food.

Food is irradiated on a conveyor belt passing through a radiation field. The radiation may be an electron beam or come from x-rays.

It can also be gamma rays, which are generated from the radioactive source cobalt 60.

TomatoesNZ - a group representing more than 150 commercial growers - said the gamma ray process was the method most likely to be used on tomatoes and capsicums coming into New Zealand.

Chairman Alasdair MacLeod is concerned it will be difficult to monitor irradiated produce beyond supermarkets and greengrocers.

"We will be working with MPI to ensure the legal labelling requirements in food outlets, including restaurants and cafes, are diligently enforced and monitored."

This meant restaurant and cafe owners would have to find out from suppliers if they were getting irradiated food.

Silcock said people must also ask if capsicums and tomatoes had been irradiated, particularly when eating out.

MPI food and beverage manager Glen Neal said there was a requirement under the Australia New Zealand standards to label irradiated foods so consumers had a choice.

"This would apply to food such as whole fruit and vegetables sold loose by supermarkets and a takeaway pizza with irradiated tomatoes as an ingredient," said Neal.

It could be on menus or a label near self-service food, he said.

The ministry would help importers and food businesses to comply with labelling.

Australian sterilisation and decontamination company Steritech said it would treat New Zealand consignments.

"Tomatoes and capsicums will be treated, in accordance with specified standards which produce food that is safe and nutritious, in Steritech's Narangba facility in Queensland," said chief executive Murray Lynch. Irradiation was a safe, non-invasive alternative to methyl bromide and other chemicals used post-harvest, he said. Some irradiated tropical Australian fruit, including mango, papaya and lychees, is already sold in New Zealand.

Editorial: Tomatoes will test our trust, p40

- Herald on Sunday

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