Will our food police try to make the irradiation debate go away through lack of genuine public consultation? Carrie Steele gets an official response to her previous blog.
AS A FOLLOW-UP from my last blog, I am pleased to say that I have received an informative response from our Minister for Food Safety regarding my concerns about non-labelling of irradiated produce.
The Minister addressed my questions regarding the nature of the review, the reason for the proposed rule change and the process that needs to be worked through before such a rule change an occur.
Food sold in NZ, whether imported or produced locally, has to comply with the Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) is the agency responsible for ‘maintaining and updating’ this code as a trans-Tasman agency. FSANZ has to approve irradiated foods before they can enter our market and undertake “comprehensive safety assessment in which the primary concern is the protection of public health and safety”. To get to the point, FSANZ have accepted the view that irradiation is safe and does not affect nutrient levels any more than “any other pest control or food safety treatments”. There are conflicting views on the safety of irradiation, but from my perspective, that is not the issue in question here.
In 2011, an independent review of food labelling law and policy identifed as one aspect for review that labelling of irradiated food should be reviewed “due to the long history of safe use of irradiation”. Food labelling standards are developed by FSANZ, but the development and introduction of standards is overseen by Ministers responsible for food regulation in NZ, and Australia. This Ministerial Forum has the capacity to adopt, amend or reject standards, and also request that they be reviewed. In response to the above proposed change, the Ministerial Forum has asked the FSANZ to “review the requirements and provide advice on the appropriateness of compulsory labelling of irradiated food”. The Minister reports that FSANZ will be carrying out this work over the next two years. During the review period, mandatory labelling of irradiated food will still be required.
I am told that public consultation will occur. However, I suspect that unless you are a regular visitor to the FSANZ website then you would be highly unlikely to know when submissions are invited. As suggested by the Minister, I will be subscribing to the site’s notifications from now on, and fully intend to make a submission once they are called for, but I fear that the number of submissions that will be made will be pitiful in comparison to the number of people who might just be concerned enough to speak out if they were asked a blunt question about their right to choose whether or not they consume irradiated produce.
I find it interesting that around the same time that this ‘independent review’ which is now recommending a rule change took place, there is an application (A1092) in process in Australia seeking permission to irradiate another 12 fruits and vegetables: apples, apricots, cherries, nectarines, peaches, plums, honeydew and rock melons, strawberries, table grapes, zucchini and scallopini. It’s not a long shot to suggest that should this application be approved, Australia will be looking to export many if not all of this produce to our shores, and that it will be a much easier sell to the NZ consumer if they can all be marketed unlabelled, rather than as irradiated produce.
Since products that have been irradiated are only detectable to customers via labelling, I am certain that customers would presume the items to NOT be irradiated, and accept them as being fresh produce. Which many would argue irradiated food is not – since it has gone through the process of irradiation.
One question I should have asked the Minister to clarify, but I overlooked to do so, was to confirm that the main reason produce from across the Tasman needs to be irradiated to be accepted in NZ is to avoid any chance of the dreaded Queensland fruit fly larvae making it to our shores. If that is the case, then considering the recent event in Grey Lynn where some of these pesky creatures turned up, as they have done previously in other parts, clearly we are always at risk of this invader sneaking in.
If the only safe way to accept produce at risk of carrying the fruit fly larvae is to nuke it, then should we be accepting it at all? In my mind that’s a big ‘no’, but you may disagree. There’s one aspect that I think all New Zealanders would agree on: that we have the right to have accurate, truthful information about the food we choose to buy and consume, and that our government allows us that right. If anything, we need more visible labelling of irradiated produce than we currently have. If retailers of irradiated produce believe that customers would resist buying produce labelled as irradiated, then surely that is reason enough not to offer it, rather than reason not to label it so that customers are tricked into purchasing it. Surely that is not the path we want to go down in this country.
Despite the fact that FSANZ is of the view that irradiation is a safe process, it is my understanding that it is still relatively new in the food chain in Australia and New Zealand – as with GM crops, which have been unleashed on the planet with the blessing of the agricultural and chemical companies who created them, with no other independent research as to their safety in the food chain.
Author Jeffrey Smith aptly describes that situation as being “genetic roulette – the gamble of our lives”, which always happens to be the title of his book on the subject. New Zealand is one of the 60 countries worldwide who require GM foods to be labelled. We also need irradiated food to continue to be labelled. Otherwise, how long will it will be before FSANZ makes the decision for us that like their opinion on irradiated foods, GM foods need not be labelled “due to the long history of safe use”?
With more people sick today in the world than at any other time in history, can it be purely coincidence that some of the new ‘technology’ – chemical, agricultural and production-related – correlates with our declining health? As individuals we need to think very carefully about that, and we need to fight for the right to know – always. CARRIE STEELE