Ever heard of ‘Dutching’? No? Neither had I until a short while ago. The word refers to a practice adopted by some Dutch producers whereby they irradiate food to clean it up for sale. For example, they are capable of irradiating fruit that has gone bad with ionizing rays from radioactive sources such as cobalt 60 or caesium 137 to recycle it into apparently innocuous jam.
This scam is just one of the more sensational sides to a practice which, I guess, few people are fully aware of, but which already has a part in our daily diets and which will be at the center of an important debate at the European Parliament this Thursday (December 19). The process of food irradiation was banned by all developed countries until three years ago, but now, under heavy pressure from the nuclear power and food industry lobbies, and as a result of the consequent legalization of the technique in the USA in 1999, it is very much back in the headlines. To irradiate food is to bomb it with ionizing radiation—in expensive plants fitted with the same security devices as nuclear power stations. Using the technique, it is possible to retard the ripening of fruit, for example, to inhibit the growth of vegetables, to erase the bacteria that poison or cause foodstuffs to perish and to kill pests. The advantages for the food industry are there for all to see; food becomes easier to conserve, hence to transport, and may be kept sterilized in unsafe production conditions—unhygienic breeding farms or super-fast livestock slaughtering chains, for example. With food irradiation, it is also possible to produce foods in developing countries, where standards of hygiene may not be up to scratch but where manpower is cheaper. The disadvantages may be less evident, but are scary nonetheless. The first is that not enough serious research has been made into the possible effects irradiated foods can have on human health (concerns exist over the radiolytic products generated in them, some fo which are known to have carcinogenic and mutagenic effects). Other question marks loom over:
– the total depletion of the nutritional and organoleptic properties of raw foodstuffs (another factor that plays into the hand of industrialized, centralized production, supporting long-distance transportation and boosting the very globalization of food that is currently threatening local production and biodiversity;
– dangers for workers in the irradiation plants themselves and blatant support for the nuclear power industry;
– the high costs for a technology that is anything but a cure-all (the fact is that lots of viruses survive anyway, while many bacteria develop forms of resistance).
In Italy irradiation is already allowed to prevent spices, garlic, onions and potatoes from germinating. But here we don’t have the plants to carry out the technique, so the real risks come from products imported from abroad: from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, the United States, Argentina, the eastern European countries and China. Whereas in the United States irradiation labeling is compulsory only for foods sold whole—ie, untreated or used as an ingredient in other preparations—European legislation is currently much more rigid and precise (though it is still very rare to find a label bearing the term ‘irradiated’). Next Thursday, under pressure, logically enough, from the nuclear power lobbies (France, first and foremost) and the United States—where they nonchalantly ultra-innovative techniques (viz. GMOs), but are then unable to export their products because they are banned elsewhere—the European parliament will vote to extend the list of foods for which irradiation is allowed to include frozen spices, chicken offal, egg whites, shrimps, frogs’ legs, cereal flakes and germs, dried fruit and gum arabic. To many European consumer associations, this approach seems a) premature and b) irresponsible. The fact is that, aside from the fact that it produces more costs than benefits, the technique of irradiation is potentially dangerous—and will be until the research carried out to date is made public and more studies commissioned to demonstrate the contrary. It’s impossible not to agree with the consumer associations, all the more so since, consumer safety apart, food irradiation also represents another real threat to the small-scale local production of healthy, wholesome food, not to for the biodiversity of the entire planet earth.
First published in La Stampa 15/12/02
Adapted by John Irving
To find out more:
THE FOOD IRRADIATION CAMPAIGN
c/o The Food Commission
94 White Lion Street
London N1 9PF
Tel: +44 207 837 9229
Fax: +44 207 837 1141