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Food Irradiation Dose Limit Would Be Removed, Health and Safety Regulations Discarded Under New Plan

March 28, 2001

Food Irradiation Dose Limit Would Be Removed,
Health and Safety Regulations Discarded Under New Plan

Substandard Food Could Be “Treated” With High-Dose Radiation in
Unlicensed and Dirty Facilities

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A proposed international food irradiation standard wending its way through legal channels in Europe could jeopardize the quality and safety of food sold to United States consumers.

Under an international plan endorsed March 16, virtually every assurance that irradiated food will be of good quality, be handled by trained workers, and be processed under safe and clean conditions in government-inspected facilities would disappear. The proposal also would remove the international dose limit for food irradiation.

The proposal was endorsed in The Hague, Netherlands, by the Codex Committee on Food Additives and Contaminants (CCFAC), which advises the Codex Alimentarius (“Food Code”) Commission. Operating under the auspices of the United Nations and World Health Organization (WHO), the Codex sets global food safety standards for more than 160 nations, representing about 97 percent of the world?s population. The United States is one of the 160 nations.

Under international trade rules, countries that are members of the World Trade Organization (WTO) can challenge the standards of other countries by claiming the standards are trade barriers. If the WTO agrees, countries whose standards are challenged must amend the standard or face trade sanctions.

U.S. standards governing irradiated food are much stricter than what Codex is proposing. That means that if the Codex measure is approved, other countries could challenge U.S. standards through the WTO. A successful challenge could pressure the U.S. to weaken its standards.

The proposal would amend the Codex?s 22-year-old food irradiation standard by stating that food companies “should” rather than “shall” comply with the standards. Many of the changes were proposed without any advance notice and approved at meetings that were closed to the public.

Under the looser standards, irradiated food would no longer have to be “of suitable quality,” in “acceptable hygienic condition,” or “handled … according to good manufacturing practices.” Additionally, food irradiation facilities would no longer have to comply with “safety” and “good hygiene practices,” or be staffed by “adequate, trained and competent personnel.” Nor would they have to be licensed or inspected by government officials, or maintain certain records on radioactive activities.

Also, food irradiation would no longer have to be carried out “commensurate with . . . technological and public health purposes” or conducted “in accordance with good radiation processing practice.”

The changes could place numerous U.S. food and nuclear safety regulations at risk. Among them are Nuclear Regulatory Commission rules requiring all irradiation facilities using radioactive material to be licensed and regularly inspected; Department of Agriculture rules requiring beef, pork and poultry products to meet certain quality standards; and USDA and Food and Drug Administration rules requiring food to be processed under hygienic conditions.

“This proposal confirms that irradiation will be used to mask filthy slaughtering and food processing practices,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “These antiquated ideas set back food safety more than 100 years, to a time when people routinely died from eating contaminated food. It is an outrage to the highest order. People throughout the world have cause for great worry.”

CCFAC also endorsed removing the current irradiation Codex dose limit of 10 kiloGray, which is the equivalent of about 330 million chest X-rays. When food is exposed to such doses of ionizing radiation, the flavor, texture, odor, nutritional integrity and chemical composition of food can change significantly. Very few of the new chemicals that are formed in irradiated food have been studied for toxicity. Most U.S. foods are dosed with between 1 and 7.5 kiloGray.

One chemical that is a byproduct of the irradiation process, called 2-DCB, was found in 1998 to cause cellular and genetic damage in human and rat cells. The WHO is continuing to research the potential toxicity and mutagenicity of the chemical, which is a radiation byproduct of a certain fatty acid found in beef, chicken, pork, lamb, duck, eggs, mangoes, papayas, peanuts, seafood and many other foods. The 2-DCB studies were conducted in Germany, one of several European Union countries that is skeptical of the purported benefits of irradiation. At the recent meeting in The Hague, the German delegation objected to the CCFAC proposal.

The proposal is about halfway through the approval process. It next will be debated by the full Codex Commission, which meets July 2-7 in Geneva.

Public Citizen has been vigorously opposing efforts to weaken international food irradiation standards by organizing nongovernmental organizations and writing letters to Codex delegates. In February, Public Citizen sent letters of concern to all U.S. delegates to CCFAC, all international delegates to the full Codex Commission, and to CCFAC Chair S.P.J. Hagenstein. Public Citizen also has challenged the WHO?s assertion that irradiated food is safe to eat by sending letters to top officials within the organization.