Food Irradiation Helps Prevent Disease And Controls Pests

Press Release: New Zealand Government

Tuesday, 26 January 1999

A proposed new standard on irradiation of foods may help reduce the incidence of food-borne disease and assist with preventing unwanted insect pests becoming established, Associate Minister of Health Tuariki Delamere and Minister for Food, Fibre, Biosecurity and Border Control John Luxton announced today.

The proposed standard provides the framework within which irradiated food would be regulated. 'It means that no irradiated food would be allowed to be sold in New Zealand or Australia until it has been assessed for safety by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) and approved by the Australian and New Zealand Health Ministers,' Mr Delamere and Mr Luxton said.

If accepted, irradiation could be an alternative to some chemical treatments of food to prevent disease or extend shelf life, and help prevent insect pests coming into the country on certain foodstuffs (e.g., fruit fly), the Ministers said.

Based on overseas experience, the Ministers do not expect to see many foods sold in New Zealand that have been irradiated. The most likely candidates are some spices (for control of disease such as salmonella) and some tropical fruits (for control of some pests such as fruit fly).

The Ministers added that under the proposed standard, which follows Codex international guidelines, all irradiated food and food ingredients would be required to be labelled.

Many countries, including New Zealand, guard against the importation of exotic insect pests by requiring disinfestation treatment of some fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts, cereals and grains that can carry pests.

Used appropriately, irradiation is a safe and effective tool for controlling both pests and disease-causing organisms, and would be an alternative to methyl bromide (an ozone-depleting gas) currently used for many quarantine treatments, the Ministers said.

In 1997 experts organised by the World Health Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency re-examined food irradiation. That meeting reviewed extensive research on food irradiation and reconfirmed many years of experience demonstrating that it is safe and effective, so long as sensory qualities of food are retained and harmful micro-organisms are destroyed.

Food irradiation can help limit food borne diseases caused by micro-organisms like campylobacter and salmonella. Food borne illnesses can be serious and in rare cases cause death.

"This is especially so for some foods, such as spices and uncooked chicken, which occasionally can carry a high risk of bacterial contamination. For dried herbs and spices there are very few treatment methods that can be used without loss of quality or flavour. Spices are currently treated with ethylene oxide gas to rid them of potentially harmful bacteria.

"Since 1989 Government policy has not allowed irradiation treatment of food for human consumption in New Zealand. The Food Regulations 1984 prohibit the sale of food treated by irradiation unless specific permission for use of the treatment has been granted by the Minister of Health.

'Public consultation by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) on the proposed standard on food irradiation provides an opportunity for the New Zealand Government to review its policy on the irradiation of food,' the Ministers said.

"The proposed standard would permit the treatment of some foods using irradiation following a case-by-case consideration by ANZFA, similar to the approach taken by at least 40 overseas countries.

The major distinctions between existing law in New Zealand and those in the proposed food standard are:

  • Under the proposed food standard all irradiated food and food ingredients would be required to be labelled. Labelling is not required by existing New Zealand law.
  • All applications to irradiate a food under the proposed standard would be subject to comprehensive public consultation, something that may not occur under existing law.
  • Decisions on whether to allow an irradiated food to be sold in New Zealand will be made by jointly by the Minister of Health and his Australian counterparts, under the joint food standard setting arrangement New Zealand has with Australia.

"If adopted, New Zealand retailers will be able to both import and sell foods irradiated as specified under the standard," Mr Luxton and Mr Delamere said.

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Last Updated: 10 September 2010

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