Consumers of tomatoes, which means almost all of us, are about to face a test of our trust in science. The tomato bins in shops and supermarkets will soon be replenished with stock imported from Australia and, as we disclose today, it will have been decontaminated by radiation.
Irradiation was hotly debated in this country more than 10 years ago, when our regulator of food standards, a joint authority for Australia and New Zealand, rejected 1000 submissions against the process and declared it safe.
Since then, the only irradiated fresh fruit and vegetables approved for sale here have been mangos, papaya and lychees. Lovely as they are, those tropical fruits are not exactly standard consumer items. They are not tomatoes.
A seasonal shortage of tomatoes and capsicums means both will be imported from Queensland once they have been subjected to gamma rays to keep bacteria or pests such as fruit fly out of New Zealand. Food Standards Australia New Zealand has given its approval and Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye is expected to agree to the imports next month.
The only question is will she ensure consumers are properly informed?
Under the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, irradiated produce must be clearly labelled so. This applies whether the food is sold loose or in bags. It also applies to food that contains irradiated ingredients or components.
Strictly speaking, we ought to see warnings on restaurant menus and takeaway bars that the dish, the pizza or the burger contains irradiated tomatoes. Interested people are likely to insist on maximum disclosure.
Local tomato growers, backed by Horticulture New Zealand, have been calling on the Government to "get food labelling right this time". When the first irradiated mangos came into New Zealand, not all of them had stickers and those that did carried the information in minute type. Australia requires stronger country-of-origin labelling than New Zealand does. In this case, New Zealand should be stringent.
Tomatoes and capsicums from Australia should be separated from New Zealand's, which will still be available, and the fact that they have been fumigated by radiation should be clearly stated on the bin and the vegetable.
Then we might discover how concerned most of us really are.
Irradiation does not sit well with New Zealand's attitude to nuclear physics in other applications, especially weapons, ship engines and electric power stations. But our designated authority on food safety is satisfied that radiation is harmless to humans at the doses used to protect the country from imported pests.
Even the local growers' lobbies do not dispute this. Their stated concern is restricted to labelling. Horticulture NZ says the Queensland fruit fly is "as significant to horticulture as foot and mouth disease is to pastoral farming". TomatoesNZ says, "Irradiation is a vital tool to protect New Zealand's vulnerable horticultural industry from fruit fly and we support its use on at-risk product from Australia. However, we do want consumers to have information at point of sale so they can make the decision to eat irradiated tomatoes for themselves."
Will we give up tomatoes for the rest of the winter, or will we trust Food Safety Australia New Zealand? Whatever happens, it will be a lesson. It will tell us once and for all whether food irradiation is unacceptable here or just a problem of perception. We need clear and honest labelling to find out.