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World food experts still divided over irradiation
(from February 12, 2003)

According to Reuters News Service, the recommended upper limit for absorbed radiation in food may be removed altogether if a committee of the Codex Alimentarius Commission, due to meet in Tanzania in mid-March, can reconcile wide differences of opinion among its members. This idea has stirred opposition from the European Union and infuriated numerous consumer lobby groups.

"If they are successful a final text will be submitted to the Codex Alimentarius Commission for formal adoption in June," a Codex official said from the organization's home base in Rome. "If they cannot agree, we can expect a two-year delay."

Codex, created in 1963 by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO), sets non-binding recommendations for food standards often used as the benchmark in international trade disputes.

The concept of irradiating conventional food by bombarding it with ionizing energy has long generated extreme views - and a meeting last year of Codex members ended in deadlock when a proposal was tabled to delete all reference to a maximum dose.

Irradiation, endorsed by the World Health Organization, exposes food to low amounts of electrons or gamma rays to destroy micro-organisms such as E.coli and salmonella. It causes chemical changes but does not leave food radioactive.

Irradiation's many critics insist there are serious concerns over its impact on health, safety and the environment, saying the process can create dangerous toxins, cause loss of nutrients and possibly hide unhygienic food production methods.

"Food irradiation is not a solution for cleaning up foods which are unhygienically produced and unfit for consumption," Britain's Food Commission says on its website.

"Food irradiation benefits larger producers and traders rather than consumers and small-scale producers. Good food doesn't need irradiating," it adds.

The deadlock seems to be over dosage. Since the last major Codex meeting on irradiation, a working group has drafted a compromise proposal that keeps a maximum dose but also inserts a controversial clause saying that high-dose irradiation has no affect on product safety.

In a standard dating from 1983, Codex sets the maximum level of absorbed permitted irradiation in food at 10,000 Gray (Gy), which represents 10,000 joules of absorbed energy per kilogram (2.2 lb).

"What they are proposing is a compromise to keep the 10 kGy dose limit but with a comment saying that it's absolutely safe at any dose anyway. It's a bit contradictory," said Merav Shrub at Britain's Food Commission, an independent watchdog group.

Several countries, including most EU member states backed by Japan and South Korea, are opposed to removing this maximum dose.

In the European Commission, officials are wary about the idea of removing the upper limit, saying the resulting large-scale irradiation might flout good hygiene practices.

At present, the EU permits food to be irradiated under only one category: dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings. All irradiated foods must be properly labeled with the words "irradiated" or "treated with ionizing radiation."

The United States, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand fall on the other side of the argument and claim that the dose is self-limiting, as amounts above 10,000 Gy are only technically feasible for a few dry commodities such as spices.