UN Food Commission Lifts Irradiation Limits

ROME, Italy, July 9, 2003 (ENS) - A United Nations commission that is the highest international body on food standards has adopted an agreement covering the assessment of risks to consumers from foods derived from biotechnology, including genetically modified foods, and irradiated products.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a subsidiary of both the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization on Monday adopted more than 50 new safety and quality standards, some new guidelines, and others that are revisions of old standards.

The guidelines cover food safety, not environmental risks. They establish broad general principles to make analysis and management of risks related to biotech foods uniform across Codex's 169 member countries.


Genetically modified potatoes are among the foods covered by the new Codex principles. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The guidelines include pre-market safety evaluations, product tracing for recall purposes, and post-market monitoring.

They cover the scientific assessment of genetically modified plants, such as corn, soybeans or potatoes, and foods and beverages derived from genetically modified micro-organisms, including cheese, yogurt and beer.

The guidelines include provisions for determining if the product may provoke unexpected allergies in consumers.

Secretary of the Codex Commission Alan Randell called the new guidelines an important step towards understanding the risks associated with foods derived from biotechnology. "Now, any country, regulatory body or other organization or individual will be able to compare the risk assessments of a given food derived from biotechnology with the assessments done by other countries," he said.


Secretary of the Codex Commission Alan Randell (Photo courtesy FAO)
The commission adopted a controversial new standard for irradiated foods that allows the foods to be subjected to higher levels of gamma rays to kill bacteria and increase shelf life.

Codex removed the maximum radiation dose of 10 kiloGray to which foods can be treated, which had been in place since 1979. Countries wishing to use a higher dose will have to demonstrate that irradiating foods above 10 kiloGray meets a "legitimate technological purpose," a standard that was not further defined.

The commission determined that such levels would eliminate bacterial spores and the radiation resistant pathogenic bacteria Clostridium botulinum, and also reduce the need to use more toxic chemical methods of combating bacteria, some of which can be harmful to the environment.

Today 37 countries irradiate food using 170 irradiators. In the United States 500,000,000 tons of food are irradiated each year, including spices, flour, fresh fruits and vegetables, pork, poultry and beef.

But consumer groups in the United States, Canada and Italy today condemned the "weakening" of international food irradiation rules, which they say will allow any food to be irradiated at any dose, regardless of how high.

"This is the final straw in the reckless pursuit of using irradiation, which is still an experimental technology, to solve complicated food safety problems," said Andrea Peart of the Sierra Club of Canada. "This decision is a severe blow against the rights of nations to establish their own food safety laws. It is undemocratic on its face."

The groups say Codex has ignored documented evidence that irradiated foods may not be safe for human consumption. They say irradiation may destroy vitamins and promote the formation of chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects.

Among the toxic chemicals formed in irradiated foods are 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs), which have been found to promote cancer development and cause genetic damage in rats, and cause genetic damage to human cells, the consumer groups point out.


Gamma ray used to irradiate food. (Photo courtesy University of Tennessee College of Engineering)
Other toxic chemicals that have been detected in irradiated foods include compounds that are known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects, including benzene, ethanol, toluene and methyl ethyl ketone.

Giulio Labbro Francia of the Italian consumer’s group Movimento Dei Consumatori said, "We are at a loss to explain Codex’s contention that irradiated foods are safe to eat in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. Now consumers throughout the world are in danger of the unknown health impacts."

The irradiation decision was made over the objections of 10 countries, including Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Mexico, and Spain.

"The UN and WHO have abandoned their mission to protect the health and welfare of the world’s population," said Andrianna Natsoulas of the U.S. organization Public Citizen. "People who eat irradiated foods will become guinea pigs in what will amount to one of the largest feeding experiments in history."

Randell defended the lifting of radiation limits for foods. “This is a really important breakthrough,” he said. “For the consumer it means a potential for higher levels of food safety because of the protection offered by food irradiation. For example, it can be applied to spices which can carry bacteria resistant to other treatments. Irradiated foods are proven safe and do not contain any radioactive traces.”

Codex standards are enforceable through the World Trade Organization, so member nations with food irradiation laws stricter than the new Codex standard could have their laws challenged and overruled. Currently, only Brazil has a food irradiation law in keeping with the new Codex standard, meaning that laws in every other nation may have to be revised.

"The commission made some very important decisions for food safety. The most important of these was to extend food safety systems to small and medium sized enterprises, especially in developing countries. This will help these small businesses produce safe food for consumers and improve their prospects for trade," Randell said.


Ground beef and other meats will be subject to Codex principles of meat hygiene. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Responding to consumer concerns about meat, the Codex commission adopted standards that will improve the safety of meat by establishing principles of meat hygiene. A Code of Practice on good animal feeding calls for stricter and more systematic controls over sources of contamination.

Codex adopted new quality standards for chocolate based on the amount of cocoa in chocolate and chocolate products. The new standard sets a minimum 35 percent of cocoa solids in products marketed as chocolate and a minimum 20 percent in chocolate type products, such as chocolate flakes. The new standard requires the minimum cocoa content to be clearly marked on the packaging of all chocolate flavored products.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission elected Stuart Slorach of Sweden as its new chairperson, replacing Thomas Billy of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Slorach is deputy director-general of the Swedish National Food Administration and a former vice chair of the commission.