More imported irradiated fresh fruits and vegetables could soon be on sale on New Zealand shelves if the rule changes.
Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) is expected to finalize the change this month, despite 95% of submissions received on it being opposed.
And he acknowledged that the treatment could reduce the nutritional value of the products, although he says this is minimal.
But FSANZ decided that irradiation was a safe and effective biosafety tool and that it would help open up export markets, putting Australia and New Zealand on par with other countries.
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Longtime irradiation activist Bob Tait of Friends of the Earth sees the change as yet another example of how New Zealand has lost its food sovereignty – the country’s historic stance against treatment has been gradually reduced.
“This has enabled the current situation where, during this month, there will likely be formal approval from an Australian dominated body to allow irradiation of the import of fruits and vegetables from Australia.”
New Zealand has a seat on the Ministerial Forum that oversees FSANZ, with Food Safety Minister Ayesha Verrall sitting alongside Australian and Federal ministers.
The forum is expected to inform FSANZ of its views on the change by July 12 – if ministers have no objection, the rule will go into effect shortly thereafter.
The irradiation request was made by the Queensland government, which requested the change to allow all fresh fruits or vegetables to be irradiated to kill the pests.
The process involves exposing the products to ionizing radiation, either gamma rays, a high-energy electron beam, or x-rays.
Currently, the treatment can only be used for 26 specified products, including imported tomatoes.
Queensland mangoes were approved for irradiation in 2004 and the list was added between 2011 and 2016 to include other products, such as tomatoes and peppers.
The final rule change would allow processing any fruit or vegetable as needed, including vegetables such as asparagus.
The request estimated that about 8 percent of fruit and 0.3 percent of vegetables imported into New Zealand would be irradiated if the rule changed.
Verrall says the measure is needed as another pest protection measure.
“For example, exotic fruit flies pose a major threat to New Zealand’s horticulture industry and Kiwi home gardens.”
She was satisfied that there were no public health or safety concerns regarding the treatment, and the recommendation had been reviewed by Food Safety NZ, a unit of the Ministry of Primary Industries.
“Food safety in New Zealand … agreed that there are no health or public safety concerns associated with irradiation as a phytosanitary measure for all fresh fruits and vegetables.”
In its submission to FSANZ, Food Safety NZ raised the issue of furans – a carcinogenic compound produced as part of treatment – although it considered the risks to be low compared to exposure from other sources.
But because of the carcinogenic risk, “levels in food should be kept as low as reasonably possible.”
FSANZ has heard testimony that the micronutrient content of some fruits and vegetables has been reduced by the irradiation process – in most cases by a small amount, but higher in others. Overall, however, FSANZ did not consider the impact to be sufficient to have more than minimal implications for the country’s overall nutritional intake.
Of the 456 objections to the change, some raised the issue of nutritional impact.
“As more and more people change their diets to include greater proportions of plant foods, it is morally and ethically irresponsible to introduce legislation that reduces the health benefits of these foods,” said a opponent, whose name has been redacted.
GE Free NZ said the authority puts profits before people.
“FSANZ’s assessment of the need for irradiation should focus on food quality and safety, not disruption of trade and markets.”
But the NZ Food and Grocery Council backed the change, saying there should be broad tolerance for irradiation, rather than producers having to wait for requests on a case-by-case basis.
Some New Zealand producers say they would welcome the change.
Matthew Malcolm, managing director of Southland grower So Sweet, says his company exported parsnips to Australia, but increased quarantine regulations made it impossible.
“Without New Zealand supply, Australian retailers are unable to meet the demand that drives seasonal prices up,” he says.
If irradiation was an option, he could send parsnips to Australia again.
Irradiated foods need to be labeled, which has been a source of contention.
Friends of the Earth researchers have found examples of imported tomatoes and mangoes sold either without labels or with inadequate labels.
Tait said that the labeling regime is a “farce”, depriving consumers of a good choice.
He has had examples where “the lettering is half the width of a thread on a paper clip, or putting the disclaimer on a branded sticker – that’s not where consumers expect to see this information.” “.
No enforcement action had been taken when violations were reported.
It further undermined New Zealanders’ choice of an important part of their diet and highlighted how the country had lost sovereignty over food regulations.
Green Party spokesperson for food security Ricardo Menéndez March said there was an “imbalance of power”.
“Therefore, no decision on modernizing our food security regime would be made with New Zealand having a fair voice, let alone recognizing the Te Tiriti of Waitangi and the kaitiaki rights of the Maori. “
There are advantages to working with other countries, but New Zealand should not give up sovereignty, Menéndez March said.
“A place to start would be for New Zealand to have equal voting rights in decisions made under FSANZ and for the government to embark on its own consultation process on how we can ensure that food policy is honors the Māori Mana Motuhake. “
Verrall said that a review of the system is underway and that “we have signaled that the importance of indigenous peoples’ rights and traditional knowledge about food needs to be reinforced in both FSANZ’s operating model and in the enabling legislation “.