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Thursday, 28 May 1987
Page: 3495


Mr KENT(12.55) —I would like to bring to the attention of the House the very serious concerns that I, and many others in my electorate of Hotham and the Australian public share about the process of food irradiation. More specifically, I wish to discuss the recommendations of the recently completed inquiry by the Australian Consumers Association.

At the outset let me state that I am concerned about the process of food irradiation for a number of reasons. First, of course, like any consumer I am concerned that an unsafe and dangerous product will be placed on our supermarket shelves and that I, like many others, may not have any choice but to purchase and consume a product that I am not satisfied meets the basic requirements of wholesomeness, nutritional value and quality. Secondly, and no less importantly, as the member for Hotham I have specific concerns about the safety aspects of the irradiation plant itself, the health risks and dangers that it poses for workers and the environment. This is particularly important as one of the two commercially owned and operated irradiation facilities in Australia at the moment is located near my electorate in Dandenong, Victoria. The plant operated by Steritech, a division of Pacific Dunlop Ltd, currently uses radiation from cobalt 60 to sterilise medical supplies, corks and wine casks. Steritech is eager to expand its operations to include the large scale irradiation of food. The location of the plant in an area which is densely populated raises important questions about the safety of the plant and the consequences to the local population in the event of a nuclear accident.

In addition, the report of the inquiry into food irradiation by the Australia Consumers Association states:

There are few actual measurable checks on the industry-

that is, the irradiation industry-

There are no simple commercially viable tests to see if food has been irradiated at all. There are no tests to measure how much irradiation food has received. Doses are calculated from the emission rate of the source, the size of the box of food, the density of the food and the time that the food is exposed to the irradiation source. It is only from accurate records in the facility and accurate labelling of the batches that irradiated food could be traced. Other than by taking cultures beforehand, there are no reliable tests to see if irradiated food had an unacceptably high count of spoilage micro-organisms before treatment. It is not possible to detect afterwards, if irradiation has been used to `clean up' food which would be considered `spoiled'. There are no ways of testing if food has been re-irradiated, and there is not way of detecting if food contains irradiated ingredients.

In spite of the available evidence and that presented in the report, the ACA inquiry has given its approval to the introduction of food irradiation in Australia subject to a number of conditions. The inquiry recommends:

That a Federal food irradiation Act be proclaimed to encompass all facets of the food irradiation industry, and that the responsibility to co-ordinate all matters under the Act be vested in a national body.

In reading the ACA report, I believe that rather than presenting findings and outlining a convincing case for the introduction of food irradiation, the inquiry demonstrates very clearly that irradiated food cannot be demonstrated to be 100 per cent safe. It cannot be considered 100 per cent wholesome nor can it be shown to retain its pre-irradiation nutritional qualities. The report makes plain that international scientific evidence is contradictory and that leading scientific and medical researchers have not reached a consensus and have been unable to reassure the public that the consumption of irradiated food is not a health risk in itself.

The ACA report correctly takes account of the conclusion reached in March this year by the British Medical Association. That conclusion was:

Irradiation of foodstuffs could pose long term health hazards.

The Board of Science of the British Medical Association has endorsed this conclusion and called for a full-scale study of the risks and benefits of process. The British Medical Association Board of Science stated:

`Such a study is necessary before the process can be confidently accepted in this country'.

Yet, the ACA has recommended the establishment of Federal legislation to enable food irradiation in this country. In its examination of the reasons why Australia would benefit from food irradiation, the ACA report lists some eight possible reasons-from the extension of the shelf life of foods to the possible benefits gained from reducing the post-harvest use of pesticides. However, in each case the ACA concludes that there is no need for it at the present time. In spite of this, the ACA has nonetheless recommended the introduction of food irradiation.

Similarly, if one looks at the position taken in the submissions presented to the inquiry, the overwhelming majority are opposed to food irradiation. For example, from a total of 88 submissions to the inquiry, two sought information, three expressed views in favour and 83 were against the introduction of food irradiation. On this basis it seems quite clear that the recommendations put forward by ACA make no sense whatsoever. However, if we look at the submissions of those supporting irradiation, the following groups appear: Horticultural Holdings Ltd, the Australian Atomic Energy Commission and the National Farmers Federation. On the face of it we can see that the very few vested interests are pushing very hard for the introduction of irradiation despite the growing tide of public opposition to it.

As well as highlighting the obvious discrepancy between the evidence presented by the Australian Consumer Association inquiry and the recommendations which the ACA has put forward, it is becoming increasingly clear that, like other types of nuclear technology, food irradiation is not in the short or long term interests of our farmers or our community.

The spectre of accidents is always present. Predictably the owners of irradiation plants like Steritech in Dandenong and the staff of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, who have spent many years promoting this technology, claim that there are no health risks to workers or local communities. They have done their best to bluff the public regarding the safety of the nuclear industry. However, even the ACA inquiry, which has been very favourable to these vested interests, states:

`Presumably staff at the Australian Atomic Energy Commission facility at Lucas Heights in Sydney, have the equipment and expertise to handle emergencies, but when Steritech's facility had a stuck cobalt rack they called Canada'.

In the case of a nuclear accident or emergency, will we also have to wait for help to arrive from Canada? As well as being shocked at such an admission, I think that it is very cold comfort indeed to the many thousands of people who live in Dandenong and surrounding areas in Victoria and those in close proximity to the other Steritech facility in New South Wales.

While the vested interests have tried very hard to dissociate food irradiation from nuclear technology, it goes without saying that the process is based on the operation of a radioactive source, most commonly cobalt 60. Cobalt 60 has a half life of 5.3 years and as such it needs to be replaced regularly. Gamma rays from cobalt 60 are more than the equivalent of 2 million chest X-rays. The radioactivity in the pool of water in which the radioactive isotopes are immersed when the plant is not operational is also considerable.

There are many potential dangers and points at which accidents can happen throughout the process of food irradiation itself, the transportation of radioactive isotopes and the disposal of radioactive waste. The ACA inquiry cites eight accidents in facilities using cobalt 60 over the past 12 years alone. Yet, the vested interests still argue that it is safe. The important point which arises from what we know so far is that the dangers are real for us all. They are even more acute for workers and for the population who are in closest proximity to the plant itself. As someone who lives close to Dandenong, and as the member representing many people who live and work nearby, I certainly do not want a nuclear industry growing up around me and my community.