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Delayed Decision on International Food Irradiation Standard a Positive Step

March 21, 2002

Delayed Decision on International Food Irradiation Standard a Positive Step

Controversy and Safety Concerns Deter Government Delegations

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? The delay of a standard that would allow companies worldwide to irradiate food at unlimited doses is a positive sign for consumers.

Last week, government, industry and consumer delegates participating in the 34th Meeting of the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC) in the Netherlands postponed until next year a proposal to amend a 23-year-old international food irradiation standard. The decision to postpone it was in response to widespread controversy and concerns over safety.

A draft revision of the standard includes removal of the current 10 kiloGray (kGy) dose limit on food irradiation, a drastic measure opposed by consumer groups, the European Community (EC) and concerned scientists.

The Codex Commission sets global food safety standards for more than 170 nations, and its rulings are enforceable by the World Trade Organization (WTO). If Codex were to approve the proposed changes to the standard, it is conceivable that trade disputes could arise that challenge national standards for food safety.

Current U.S. regulations allow certain foods to be irradiated at doses ranging from 1 to 7.5 kGy. The maximum 10 kGy limit set by Codex is the equivalent of about 330 million chest X-rays. Food exposed to higher levels of ionizing energy can suffer significant changes in flavor, texture, odor, nutritional integrity and chemical composition.

“Until the risks involved with food irradiation are resolved, governments should be wary of allowing a free-for-all,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The approval of this proposal could result in an international health scandal of untold proportions. This is not about food safety. The irradiation industry is lobbying for this change because high-level irradiation is more cost-effective for it. Once again, the bottom line is being valued over the health and safety of citizens around the globe.”

Poland and the European Community (EC) have objected to the proposed deletion of the 10 kGy limit, citing concerns over the safety of irradiated foods. Many new and unknown chemicals are created as by-products of food irradiation, and one class of them, cyclobutanones, has been found to cause cellular and genetic damage in human and rat cells.

The EC opposes the draft revision while further scientific advice is pending and to this end has commissioned research on the toxicity of these chemicals. The EC’s Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) is currently evaluating the recently finished report. A summary of the study indicates that cyclobutanones “exhibit some toxic effects including promotion of colon carcinogenesis in rats.” When Public Citizen requested the entire study, it was told that the report is confidential and that there are no plans for it to be published or peer-reviewed.

The Codex Commission failed to discuss the food irradiation standard proposal at its annual meeting last July and transferred responsibility to the Executive Committee, which endorsed the proposal behind closed doors in September and advanced it to the next step in Codex’s adoption procedures.

The SCF met this February, two weeks before CCFAC convened to discuss the cyclobutanone study but delayed issuing a scientific opinion to allow for further review. This acknowledgment of the complex scientific concerns involved, coupled with the numerous and divergent comments submitted to CCFAC, forced the committee to freeze the approval process for this standard. Delaying approval should allow CCFAC the opportunity to investigate the wider ramifications it could have on the health of the world’s population as well as the credibility of the governments and parties that sponsor such a controversial standard.