WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE SAFETY OF FOOD IRRADIATION

The use of radiation to process food has received much expert scrutiny both in Australia and internationally. The rays used in the process originate from a radioactive source and penetrate into the food. The process can be used to reduce spoilage microorganisms in foods such as chicken, meat, fish and spices; sprouting in potatoes and onions and insect infestation in grains. There is a generally held belief, particularly following the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, that food treated with radiation will become radioactive. In the case of Chernobyl, food became radioactive by contamination with radioactive materials which escaped into the environment. In food irradiation the radioactive source does not come into contact with the food and at the levels of radiation recommended, there is no appreciable increase above the natural level of radioactivity in the food. Irradiation does cause loss of some nutrients but generally this is no greater than that resulting from other forms of food processing. These losses are not likely to be nutritionally significant in an overall diet.

The process may provide an alternative to use of some food additives and pesticides and will reduce food wastage. Taken on balance, the small potential risk associated with the process appears to be outweighed by its potential benefits. However, if processing by irradiation is abused and used as an alternative o good hygienic and manufacturing practices, there could be excessive nutrient destruction and a potential health hazard associated with the toxins remaining after destruction of some microorganisms.

Until there is a method to reliably detect irradiated foods in the market place and the dose of radiation they have received, the potential health hazard from abuse of this process is a cause for concern. It would be prudent to prohibit food irradiation until effective monitoring controls are developed.