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Australian Officials Urged to RejectU.S. Company?s Food Irradiation Plan

Nov. 5, 2001

Australian Officials Urged to Reject
U.S. Company?s Food Irradiation Plan

Consumer Group Expresses Concerns Over Safety of and Need for Radiation “Treatment” for Exotic Fruits

WASHINGTON, D.C.   A prominent U.S. food irradiation company should be prevented from irradiating tropical fruit in Australia due to lingering questions about the safety and wholesomeness of irradiated foods, and because the company has failed to demonstrate that the process is necessary, Public Citizen said today in formal comments filed with the Australian government.

Additionally, the company has a history of failing to present complete and truthful information concerning irradiation to government officials and consumers, which violates the standards set by Australian food regulations.

San Diego-based SureBeam, an affiliate of defense contractor Titan Corp., has asked permission from Australian officials to irradiate mangoes, papayas, breadfruit, starfruit and other exotic fruits for export to the United States, New Zealand, Japan and countries in Europe. SureBeam, which irradiates beef for several small U.S. outfits, is expanding its operations internationally to Brazil, Japan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

SureBeam’s application to irradiate fruit in Australia comes in the wake of a recent change in Australian law lifting a 10-year ban on food irradiation. Food authorities will now consider irradiation on a case-by-case basis. The recent changes in Australian food regulations have met growing opposition from an outraged public.

Australia?s strict food laws require companies to present scientific evidence that their food products are safe for human consumption. The laws also require companies to show that there is a “technological need” for their processing techniques, to refrain from “misleading and deceptive conduct” and to show that their products will benefit citizens, the food industry and the government.

But Public Citizen?s analysis of SureBeam?s proposal reveals that the company has failed to meet these standards. SureBeam has not provided Australian authorities with scientific evidence that irradiated fruits are safe for human consumption, according to a review of the Australia New Zealand Food Authority?s initial assessment of SureBeam?s application. In addition, SureBeam’s assertion that tapping into foreign markets meets a “technological need” is illogical. SureBeam claims it wants to fill this need because New Zealand currently doesn?t accept other, cheaper methods of sanitizing food, and so SureBeam can?t export fruits to that country. However, SureBeam is not offering to fill a technical need so much as it is trying to find a way to boost its business. Finally, consumer reaction in the United States and growing opposition to irradiation in Australia likely will result in its market failure, so irradiation will not benefit any of the affected parties.

Public Citizen has filed a false advertising complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against SureBeam. In press releases and advertisements, the company calls its method of irradiation “electronic pasteurization”, a term the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers “misleading”. The FTC is currently conducting an inquiry into SureBeam’s conduct.

“SureBeam has not been a good corporate citizen in our country,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “There is no reason to believe the company will behave any differently abroad. Australians should be on guard.”

SureBeam’s effort to expand internationally is an example of the rapid globalization of the food production and distribution industries. Food production, from farm to fork, is increasingly consolidated under large food conglomerates, thus accelerating the industrialization of the world’s food supply.

“Industrialization seeks to extend the shelf life of food and increase corporate profits at the expense of producing fresh and healthy food for consumers,” Hauter said. “The globalization of food supplies is a threat to the livelihood of farmers and the health of citizens all over the world. It is unethical to change food safety laws with the hidden agenda of capturing foreign markets.”

Irradiation is the process by which food is exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation from X-rays, gamma rays or accelerated electrons. It was born out of the Atoms for Peace movement as an attempt to find new uses for war technologies. The process can damage the molecular structure of food, destroy vitamins and nutrients, and form chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects. Comprehensive scientific research on the long-term health effects of consuming irradiated food has not yet been conducted.