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Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Food irradiation - is it a nuclear debate or a missed opportunity?

Potentially dangerous things that we can’t see, smell or sense fuel fears. Seems that nothing fuels these fears more than the words "nuclear" or "radiation".  A little knowledge can ease the mind - slightly. 
Probably more sensitive that GMO foods is the issue of using irradiation on foods foods.  We seem to know that exposure to radiation may cause cancer, so it doesn’t take much of a leap to conclude that exposure to irradiated foods would also cause cancer.  That is not the case, but in the absence of good education and communication, lingering fear will dominate. 
Irradiation can be a good technology for certain food processes, and in some situations may be the best technology. It potentially has value and purpose.  The controversy exists because organized groups have mounted aggressive campaigns opposing the use of irradiation that have affected political processes - particularly south of the border and in Europe. Political decisions are often made on the basis of lobbying and not based on scientific rigour. Policy need not exclusively consider science, but should at least acknowledge its contribution to the debate and not offhandedly dismiss the evidence.
Lost in the irradiation debate is the value of potential reductions in toxic chemical use, physical processes that can affect food products, and sometimes the lack of alternatives.  The result can be decisions to not import/export certain foods and indefensible trade barriers.  Fruits in particular,  can have shelf lives extended through irradiation making longer distance transport and providing greater healthy food options.
Unlike with GMOs,  there are few strong proponents for the use of irradiated foods as alternate options do exist.   Food distributors can recognize the added value and potential cost savings, however the costs and risks of approval and conditions for use are a deterrent to the needed initial investments.  Radiation is not subject to patent protection,  and processes can be readily modified for unique commercial application thus avoiding patent infridgements.  As such, there is no big money behind supporting irradiated foods.  In the absence of big money there is limited research undertaken to truly test food irradiation safety and dangers.  
There may be legitimate safety issues. Following rigorous scientific methodology will answer such questions.  As with other non-patent protected solutions to health problems, there is an inherent bias against exploration as there is limited public or private money for developmental research.   In the end, we may just be missing a simple and cost-effective way of solving many food production problems for unwarranted fears.  If there are dangers, they can be documented rather than merely speculated.
As with GMO foods, in Canada foods that are irradiated undergo regulatory review, something that should make Canadians feel safer  CFIA irradiation fact sheet  .  On top of this is that foods with more than 10% irradiated components require labelling (unlike GMO foods where industry has successfully argued against labelling).   That the regulatory environment does not treat the issues in a parallel fashion is perhaps the good indicator of what money can buy.

I'd be interested in your thoughts - which would you prefer GMO foods, irradiated foods - or do you sit in the organic food camp that will be discussed next?   Leave a comment for all to ready, or contact me at drphealth@gmail.com   

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