What is food irradiation?

You could be forgiven for thinking the term ‘human health and safety’ is being redefined if you’ve been following the recent media trail on food irradiation. The debate is escalating as Australian consumers become informed on the issues surrounding this industry.

Given the scientific data proving nutrition is one of the keys to good health, would you eat irradiated food or serve it to your family? What are the long-term health effects of this new food technology? Have the human safety factors been adequately addressed? Not only can you inform yourself of the facts necessary to make a decision, you can actively participate in the decision-making process.

What is food irradiation?

As a technology for food processing, food irradiation is the exposure of food to gamma rays from a radioactive source. Foods to be irradiated are placed on a conveyor belt that travels into a chamber where Cobalt-60 or Cesium 137, a waste product of the nuclear weaponry industry, emits the radioactive rays. The process is contained in a chamber with concrete walls two metres thick and the radiation source is kept in a tank of water within the chamber. The radioactive source is then raised out of the water to expose the product.


In 2000, the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) received an application by a privately owned company, Steritech Pty Ltd, to irradiate food in Australia — Application A4131. George West, General Manager of Steritech,2 in a 1998 speech promoted three benefits of food irradiation. These are: “for disinfestation purposes to ensure the elimination of any insects, eggs or larvae that may cause a quarantine concern … to eliminate harmful bacteria that may cause food borne illness and … to reduce the amount of spoilage organisms in food thus extending the shelf life”.3
Shareholders in primary industries such as meat, poultry, seafood, grain, fruit and vegetables are keen to reap the benefits of irradiation by increasing exports, both internationally and interstate. The food industries such as big agri-business, middle market and retail also hope to benefit by ensuring consumer safety and the extension of shelf life that food irradiation technology promises to deliver.
Steritech, the only commercial irradiator in Australia, will also benefit from the partnership between the irradiation and food industries. To this end, Steritech plans to expand its current two-plant operation in Dandenong,Vic, and Wetherill Park, NSW, into Queensland. Steritech has applied to the Federal Environment Department for permission to site a nuclear irradiation facility at Narangba, in the Caboolture Shire, 40km north of Brisbane.
The nuclear industry will also benefit by supplying the necessary nuclear material, Cobalt-60 (currently imported into Australia), and associated nuclear technology. In 1964, a Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation (JECFI) was established under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Along with the IAEA, this expert committee includes the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and the World Health Organisation (WHO).

The benefits to the consumer of irradiated food are being questioned, however. In George West’s speech he clearly states that irradiation will increase the cost of food. Rebecca Smith, Senior Food Policy Officer for the Australian Consumer’s Association,5 recently stated that it’s known that vitamin deficiencies occur in irradiated foods and questioned the necessity of this technology when there are alternative methods for disinfestation.

While Steritech has not included food among the items listed for irradiation at the proposed Narangba plant, on 5 June 2000, Democrat Senator Andrew Bartlett issued a press release: “This is not just about opposition to an irradiation plant in one area but about the imposition of irradiated food on the community more generally without adequate safeguards.” On 5 February 2001, Democrats State Environment Spokesperson Adam Zaborszczyk issued a press release in relation to the Narangba plant and Queensland Labor Health Minister Wendy Edmond: “I cannot see how a Health Minister can consider approving a major project which has potentially devastating long-term effects on people’s wellbeing, without compromising her responsibility to her constituents.”

Following a meeting on 16 May 2001 between Labor leader Kim Beazley, relevant Labor MPs and concerned citizens of Narangba, Labor issued a press release calling for a halt to the proposed plant. Shadow Minister for the Environment, Senator Nick Bolkus, stated: “There is public unease surrounding the issue of large-scale irradiation plants and there has not been enough public debate.”8 He also called for Steritech to publicly disclose whether its plans for the Narangba facility include food irradiation.

Health concerns

In their article Preventing Pathogenic Food Poisoning: Sanitation Not Irradiation,9 Dr Samuel Epstein, Professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago (also Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition), and Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen10 had the following to say: “Bacterial food poisoning can be readily prevented by long overdue basic sanitary measures rather than by ultra-hazardous irradiation technologies.”
Many endorsements followed this article, available online,11 including those from the following health and science professionals:
Dr John Gofman, Emeritus Professor Molecular and Radiation Biology, University of California, USA, appeared on the ABC Four Corners program on 4 August 1986 and stated that the only meaningful test would be to compare what happens in cancer rates for 100,000 people eating irradiated food for 10-20 years and 100,000 matched people not eating it. At the time of the interview Dr Gofman had spent more than 20 years studying the effects of radiation on human health and was once one of the US government’s most senior advisors on the issue.
Dr Donald Louria, Chairman Department of Preventive Medicine, New Jersey Medical School, USA, from his article entitled Food Irradiation: Perceptions Of A Qualified Opponent12 continues: “The reasons for my own concerns are the following (listed in order of decreasing concern): nutritional decrements in irradiated foods; unsatisfactory safety data; possible chromosomal damage; and the issue of inadequate monitoring and/or spillage of the radioactive materials used … The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) judged safety on the basis of five of 441 available toxicity studies. Only these five animal studies were thought to be properly conducted, fully adequate by 1980 toxicological standards and able to stand alone in support of safety.”
Dr George Tritsch, Cancer Research Scientist, Roswell Park Memorial Institute, New York State Department of Health, USA, had this to say: “I am opposed to food irradiation because it is clear that this process increases the levels of mutagens and carcinogens in the food. The inevitable consequence of this is that in two to five decades in the future, the incidence of cancer will increase from what we see now, in direct proportion to the amounts of irradiated food consumed…”

Long-term dangers of irradiated food

From the ABC Four Corners report, 4 August 1986, Dr John Gofman says, “The instant food is irradiated, millions of chemical bonds are shattered. When they recombine, new chemical compounds are formed. These compounds are called radiolytic products…” These new molecules in the food cause an over-production of aflatoxin, a naturally occurring fungus that is extremely carcinogenic. Aflatoxins are found in mould-containing foods such as grain, onions and potatoes and are 1000 times more cancer-causing than the pesticide irradiation would replace.
An article entitled ‘Food Irradiation: An FDA Report’, by Alan T Spiher Jr, in FDA Papers, October 1968, reported that animals in laboratory tests showed an increase in infant mortality rates, reduced bodyweight, shortened lifespans, increased rates of tumours and cataracts on a diet of irradiated food. In other tests sponsored by the USDA between 1976 and 1980, rats and other test animals experienced an increase in testicular tumours and kidney disease, and a shortened lifespan while being fed irradiated chicken. “It was a consistent finding,” said FDA researcher Dr Donald Thayer.
One of the most recent food irradiation studies was conducted by the prestigious Federal Research Centre for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1998.15 The laboratory, managed by Dr Dieter Ehlermann, has been the site of more than 100 food irradiation experiments since 1970. Dr Ehlermann is a longtime food irradiation researcher and supporter and Germany’s top representative to the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (ICGFI). The study was co-funded by the ICGFI, a firmly pro-irradiation group that advises the Codex Alimentarius Commission on international food irradiation policy.
The study revealed that a chemical formed in irradiated foods that contain fat (such as beef and chicken) caused genetic mutations in the colons of rats fed the chemical. The chemical, called 2-DCB, has not been discovered in any natural food on earth. The researchers recommended more studies be conducted and concluded the results “urged caution”. However, the World Health Organisation, which has endorsed the irradiation of any food at any dose — potentially the equivalent of several billion chest x-rays — has distorted and dismissed the study’s findings.
In 1975, results were published of a clinical trial conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), India, into the effects of feeding freshly irradiated wheat to undernourished children.17 The expert committee, JECFI, had approved irradiation of wheat with the proviso that it should be stored, post irradiation, for three months before consumption. The NIN researchers, however, undertook studies utilising wheat from each of the following three categories:
un-irradiated, freshly irradiated and irradiated/stored for the required period. Although the emphasis of the NIN experiments was on laboratory animals, the smaller trial on the children was significant. The results mimicked those from the animal studies by demonstrating a possible causal link between the ingestion of freshly irradiated wheat and the development of polyploidy, a chromosomal defect exhibiting an abnormal number of chromosomes in the bone marrow of the rats and mice and in the blood of the monkeys and children.

The results of the animal studies, “carefully designed in accordance with cytogenetic methodology”, were alarming in that several other negative results were evidenced in the rats and mice. These included mutations in offspring, damage to sperm cells, increased number of foetal deaths and lowered immune response. While there was controversy surrounding these studies, Dr Srikantia, director of the National Institute of Nutrition, stands by the institute’s research. “Promoters of food irradiation have gone to extraordinary lengths to discredit the National Institute of Nutrition studies. Much of the attention has focused on polyploidy … Scientists do not fully understand what mechanisms come into play in the formation of cancer but it is widely believed that damage at the cell level and, in particular, damage to the chromosomes initiates the process … As we noted earlier, irradiation creates free radicals which are cancer ‘promoters’.19
In Public Citizen’s report,20 the issue of systematic undermining and dismissal of negative results in food irradiation research, particularly by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as it bends to industry pressure, is noted: “FDA officials have systematically dismissed evidence suggesting that irradiated food can be toxic and induce genetic damage. Much of this evidence resulted from government-funded research submitted to the FDA and members of Congress as early as 1968.”

Nutritional value of irradiated foods

According to a Parliamentary Library Legislative Research Service paper prepared by Dr R Panter, Science Technology and Environment Group, 22 August 1986, entitled Food Irradiation in Australia — A Short Discussion Paper, there is significant destruction of several vitamins, especially B1, C, B12, A, E and K, as a result of irradiating food. Furthermore, it was noted, “if an irradiated food is cooked at home, further vitamin losses will occur”.
In her article, Food irradiation and vitamin A deficiency — Public Health Implications,21 Leah Bloomfield, Visiting Fellow at the School of Medical Education, WHO Regional Training Centre, UNSW, outlines the developments in food irradiation and the relationship to vitamin A deficiency. “In 1991 the Australian Government commissioned (and paid) the World Health Organisation to undertake a comprehensive review of all of the scientific evidence on safety … a thorough and detached analysis of the original research material reveals problems and inconsistencies, which do not allow WHO to claim irradiated food is safe for human consumption… The practice of sterilizing laboratory animal feed with high doses of radiation has become increasingly widespread over the last 25 years. This treatment may cause large-scale vitamin destruction, so vitamins are routinely added to the feed after irradiation to bring it up to the required laboratory specifications. For example, irradiation of chick feed at 20kGy resulted in losses of vitamin A and beta-carotene of 12.5% and 25% respectively; treatment of cat feed reduced vitamin A by 93% and beta-carotene by 6.3%.”
Bloomfield concluded, “It is premature for the FAO and WHO to lend their support to programs which facilitate the widespread adoption of food irradiation … irradiation may reduce the availability of vitamin A for consumption and vulnerable populations may become more dependent on food fortification programs and oral supplements.”

Environmental concerns

In the 1988 Report22 from the House of Representatives Inquiry into Ionising Radiation,23 international accidents and those at the two existing plants in Australia are documented on pages 234-241. George West, Production Manager at the Steritech Dandenong plant, then owned by Tasman Vaccine, was called to the plant on 13 August 1980. A nuclear source rack had not returned to ‘safe’ position at the bottom of the containment pool and the plant was shut down. As a result, 17 pencils containing radioactive material spilled out of Module 4 into the pool.
In November 1982, a fire broke out in what was then the Johnson & Johnson plant in NSW, caused by poor-quality tape allowing the lid of a cardboard box to open, jam and catch fire. Other accidents listed include the death of a Norwegian irradiation facility worker after exposure to a nuclear source.24
Sol Theo, a Narangba Concerned Citizen, appealed approval by Caboolture Shire Council of a Steritech application for rezoning of land in relation to siting an irradiation plant. At Appeal Ground H of the court hearing25 it was revealed that 7000 gallons of water (equalling 31.8 cubic metres) was lost from the Steritech Dandenong plant over a period of only 21 days, between 29 July 1986 and 19 August 1986. Evaporation was the reason given for this water loss but, in the appellant’s submissions to the court, it was noted that this is a “huge volume of water” to be evaporated from a “contained” pool. According to Mr Theo, this supposed loss to evaporation has not been satisfactorily explained.

Labelling and detection

A London Food Commission online press release26 has reported illegal sales of irradiated food in the UK. The foods were not labelled as irradiated, thereby suggesting the food industry cannot be trusted with self-regulation. How are consumers to know if a food has been irradiated, or re-irradiated, and how many times and at what dose? While detection methods are described as being in their infancy, the reality is that detection is a laboratory task that is ‘thermoluminescence’. The issue of limited detection methods is a major argument against the introduction of food irradiation.


In the 1988 Report,27 alternative treatments for disinfestation are listed on pages 184-187 and include heat sterilisation of herbs and spices, cold storage and hydroponics, among several others. The organic food industry, which will not certify irradiated food, is a sound alternative. While organic is more ecologically sustainable, it’s also the fastest growing agricultural industry in the United States.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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