I'm wondering why the Government is about to approve the importation of irradiated apples, peaches, apricots and nine other fruit and vegetables from fruit fly-infested Queensland.
After all, we have an abundance of locally grown produce here that doesn't need to be irradiated, and it's still difficult for our growers to get their apples sold in Australia. So why is our Government bending over backwards to allow even more irradiated produce into our food chain? Nor can I understand why our Government wants to remove the requirement that irradiated food must be labelled.
Surely consumers have a right to know whether the apples they are buying are fresh, or have been imported from Queensland and exposed to high doses of radiation to sterilise them and kill off potential fruit fly lava?
At present irradiated food is supposed to be labelled as having been "treated with ionising irradiation". But the New Zealand and Australian governments want to get rid of this requirement. They've asked Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate whether there are "better ways than labelling to communicate the safety and benefits of irradiated food to consumers".
The governments are under pressure to do this from Queensland, which wants to be able to export fruit to New Zealand, despite the fact that Queensland is crawling with fruit flies, including the devastating Queensland fruit fly that infests more than 100 different species of fruit and vegetables.
It's also under pressure from retailers who are reluctant to sell irradiated food, for fear that consumers won't buy it. This explains why very little irradiated food is on sale in supermarkets, even though tomatoes, capsicums, persimmons, nine different tropical fruits and herbal teas and spices have already been approved for sale.
Paul Harker, head of produce for Woolworths Australia, voiced retailers' concerns at a 2012 horticulture conference. Irradiated food is "an extremely emotional product", he told the conference, and retailers were not going to try to convince consumers there's nothing wrong with irradiation, he warned. Unless there was a concerted campaign to promote irradiated food "that was not led by the people peddling irradiation", and involved the government and other industry groups, "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".
The governments have taken on board retailer concerns, and are casting around for ways to make irradiated food "more palatable" to consumers. The main strategy they have come up with is to ensure that consumers won't realise they are buying it, by removing the requirement for mandatory labelling.
If they succeed, retailers will be able to sneak irradiated produce into the food chain, and it will be sold, unlabelled, as if it was "fresh".
But irradiated food is anything but fresh. It's been exposed to radiation doses that are between three and 15 million times the strength of x-rays. The Brisbane radiation facility uses Cobalt 60 to irradiate food, a radioactive material that is manufactured in Canadian nuclear reactors, and shipped to Australia in special unbreakable steel canisters.
I visited the Brisbane irradiation facility in 2004. Boxes of food travel by conveyor belt into an irradiation "chamber". The irradiation process breaks down the molecular structure of food; destroys vitamins in food, and creates free radicals and other "radiolytic compounds" that have never been found in nature, and whose effect on human health is not known. FSANZ claims that despite these changes, irradiated produce is perfectly safe to eat. But no long-term studies have been conducted to determine the safety of irradiated food. Also of concern is the fact that in 2008 the Australian Government was forced to ban irradiated cat food after more than 80 cats died or became seriously ill after eating irradiated cat food.
This begs the question - if cats can die, or become ill from eating irradiated cat food, what could be the cumulative effect on humans of eating significant quantities of irradiated food? There's no benefit to New Zealand consumers, and only risks to our growers, from imported irradiated produce.
If a viable fruit fly, hidden in imported fruit from Queensland, were to survive irradiation and become established here, it would be a horticultural disaster. Given these risks, the Government needs to explain why it intends to allow even more irradiated fruit and vegetables to be imported and why it's supporting a proposal to remove the requirement to label irradiated foods.
Sue Kedgley is a Wellington regional councillor and a former Green Party MP.
Debate on this article is now closed.