Irritation Over Irradiation

(From: Vol 1 Issue 2 October 1987)

An “important milestone in food preservation methodology since the successful development of canning in the 19th century” — this is how the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in its PR magazine Nuclear India characterises the zapping of food with radiation. The process, which prolongs the shelf-life of fresh food, is called irradiation.

Irradiation seems to be the fashion worldwide. Thus, a Malaysian seminar recently announced that frozen shrimp exported to Japan would soon be treated by this ”modern” process. Its proponents are Malaysia’s Nuclear Energy Unit, which has a vested interest in this, and Canada, one of the largest producers of Cobalt-60 in the world.
In Japan, the government has announced that irradiated oranges and fish paste products would soon be allowed into the country, in the interest of reducing trade frictions with the United States.

Increasing alarm
But there is also increasing alarm about both the safety of the process and the motives of those who” are pushing it. Mainly because of health hazards, the European Parliament has refrained from authorizing irradiation in general and has banned the import of irradiated food from countries other than the members of the European Community While the process is still under discussion in the United Kingdom, in West Germany selling of irradiated food on the internal market has been banned For the export of food no such law exists.

In India, which recently cleared the application of radiation for preservation of onions, potatoes, frozen sea foods and spices, critical voices are raised. Kalpana Sharma writes. “The wisdom and appropriateness of the Government’s decision allowing irradiation of certain food products for export and for the domestic market can he seriously questioned.”

Food irradiation

The technology for irradiation has been available for more than twenty years. However, it has been applied for conserving food only recently. Beside applying accelerated electrons or X-rays, cobalt-60 or ceasuim-137 can be used in loading a device which produces beams of ionising radiation. Cobalt-60 and ceasium-137 are waste products of nuclear industry.

In relatively low doses of less than 15 kilorads the radiation prevents potatoes and onions from sprouting. Doses up to 50 kilorads delay the ripening of fruits like mangoes or bananas and extend their shelf-life by one or two weeks. It kills insects, bacteria and some fungi and thus disinfects and conserves fruits and vegetables without changing their outer appearance. Higher doses around 200 kilorads “can extend the acceptability, and, in turn, marketability of iced fish by about two weeks”. (Nuclear India) Spices may be exposed to kill insects and microbes.

It has to be noted that the dosage is not high enough to make irradiated food radioactive. However, the international debate on the health hazards of this process shows that research into this question did not yield uncontradicted conclusions so far.
Debate on health hazards

The joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation, which was set up by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the World Health Organisation and, significantly, the International Atomic Energy Authority, declared irradiated food as safe, if it had been exposed to a dosage below 1 Mrad. This decision was made “on the basis of extensive wholesome new studies with laboratory animals carried out in different countries” claims the DAE. However, the Japanese scientist Dr. Kosei Takahashi found that the joint committee had ignored data which contradicted their findings, including Japanese and Soviet studies which showed mutations and organ changes in mice fed with irradiated diets.

In the US the Food and Drugs Administration has limited the permissible dose of radiation to a maximum which is smaller than the international!) recommended value by the factor of ten. The contradiction in what has to be regarded as a safe dose must make us suspicious of the validity of the research carried out in both cases.
The supporters of irradiation in the US rely heavily for their safety arguments on a series of 17 studies done by the Industrial Biotest Laboratories for the US Army, which “proved” irradiation to be safe. An investigation by the US General Accounting Office has since revealed deficiencies in their methods and in 1983 three executives of this institution were convicted of falsifying test data material relating to other drugs and chemicals. Such is the reliability of research carried out by institutions which are close to agencies having a vested interest in certain findings.
Research on health hazards has not been carried out on just laboratory animals. C. Bhaskaran and G. Sadasiwam from the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad experimented on malnourished children which were fed with wheat which was unirradiated, freshly irradiated and wheat stored for twelve weeks after being exposed to radiation. They observed that the children fed with irradiated wheat produced abormal cells with more than the usual number of chromosomes. While this study, which was published in 1975 by the American Journal of Clincal Nutrition, again raises the fundamental question of the morality of experimenting with children, its validity has been questioned by some scientists because of the use of freshly irradiated wheat. Usually wheat is stored for some time after exposure to radiation. Moreover, critics of this study pointed to the nutritional status of the children used by the scientists. But is seems that the production of abnormal cells, the main result of the study, has not been rejected in general.
Another research report of the same institute warns : ”It is clear that irradiation of wheat does not alter the susceptability of the grain to fungal infection but can bring about changes in the grain composition favouring an increased production of toxin.” The toxins referred to are extremely poisonous and carcinogenic even in very small concentrations. In this research project only a few out of hundreds of toxin producing fungi have been studied. Besides, in practice the storing conditions are more favourable to the growth of fungi than the perfectly dry laboratory conditions in which the experiments were carried out.
Spoiled food looks fresh

At doses used for irradiation, a large number of fungi and bacteria will be killed so that the food items, especially fish and sea foods, appear to be fresh. However, some extremely poisonous bacteria and viruses survive, multiply and contaminate the food There is also a good chance of mutations of these contaminants produced by the radiation which ma) create new dangerous bacteria and viruses.
Another effect of irradiation is its impact on the fruits and vegetables themselves. It destroys the cells of the products and together with that vitamins A, some Bs, C and E. In wheat 20% to 65% of Vitamin Bl is lost after irradiation and storage for eight weeks. In potatoes there is a loss of 28% to 56% of Vitamin C. In meat, radiation alters amino acids and fat.

The health hazards connected with the handling of radioactive substances like cobalt-60 nad ceasium-137 in the process of irradiation are a topic left for another article in Anumukti appearing later.

Consumers associations in Malaysia, Japan, Western Euripe, Australia and the US have urged governments and international organisations that the process should not be inflicted on the unsuspecting consuming public while scientists are still arguing over its effects on health. On the other hand, DAE’s praises for irradiation have been quoted earlier. What is behind this attitude?

Political reasons
We find the answer to this from the DAE as well, “one of the beneficial applications of atomic energy”. Beside hopes concerning the economic profitability of this technology in the future, there are other political reasons behind its development. International research on food preservation by radiation has been sponsored largely by the Pentagon and the US Department of Energy. It wan expected that this way the use of nuclear material would become a common matter of everyday life.

This would help in increasing the acceptability of peaceful as well as military uses of nuclear energy. Showing the benefits drawn from the wastes of the nuclear fuel process, the technincally as yet only insufficiently solved question of waste storage is thus expected to be settled on a political le\el.
Profits are expected from selling this technonlogy to Third World countries which find difficulties in storing and distributing fruits and fish by conventional methods. These countries, on the other hand, want to increase their exports of food products by more effective systems of conservation.
But is this process appropriate for countries like India? Its required capital and its running costs are very high. Therefore, it has been suggested to invest the money needed for its application first into the construction and development of traditional facilities like rat free silos, refrigeration and packing which are cheaper and safer.
Irradiation also means the centralisation of food processing in huge monopolistic complexes dominated by a few industrialists and beaurocrats. The control and regulation of its application itself is a complicated and expensive process posing new legal and administrative questions. Finally, irradiation contributes to a further export orientation of agriculture and food production, the wisdom of which needs to be questioned seriously.
Note : This article is based on material prepared by Ms Hafija Ibrahim from the Consumers Association of Penang, Malaysia, and distributed by Third World Network Features.

Other sources are Kalpana Sharma, “Hazards of irradiation”, in Indian Express 3-7-’87, and “Atomic Energy and Food Preservation”, in Nuclear India. Vol. 25/2 & 3/86, Pp. 8-10.