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Tuesday, 17 February 1987
Page: 95


Senator GARETH EVANS (Minister for Resources and Energy)(8.12) —I do not want to go into a long argument about food irradiation as such because it is a subject of controversy, as Senator Macklin has said. Whether it deserves to be is another question. But that is something on which I will not pre-empt the judgment of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Environment and Conservation which is presently looking at this matter and hoping to report before the Budget session, nor will I pre-empt the judgment of the Australian Consumers Association which, as we know, has been contracted by the Minister for Health (Dr Blewett) to investigate food irradiation and which is expected to present its report by mid to late April. What I can do is indicate what the situation is on the basis of the rather limited briefing material presently available to me. My main bulk of briefing material is presently buried away in a mass of cardboard boxes currently being shifted from upstairs to downstairs and I am feeling a little naked as a result.

The Australian Atomic Energy Commission involvement in research on food irradiation goes back a quite considerable period and has been the subject of full public reporting year after year in the annual reports of the Atomic Energy Commission. It is involved, both directly and through government sponsorship of the International Atomic Energy Agency's project in the region of food irradiation, in assisting developing countries in the region to transfer food irradiation technology to local industries for commercial use in aiding preservation, storage and trading in food. That is all in countries in respect of which there is an acceptance and utilisation of the technology and we have been assisting in that respect.

What has to be acknowledged and not overlooked in any reference to this matter is that there has been significant international research on the subject for a long time and the technique is at the stage where it is thought generally to be appropriate for implementation on an industrial scale. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, which, as Senator Macklin will undoubtedly know, is an international agency set up to implement food standards developed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation, has adopted a general standard for irradiated food. As I understand it, that standard is in general use in the countries in the region where this technology is now being applied. The Food and Drug Administration of the United States Department of Health and Human Services-not an organisation which is known to be backward in the rigor of the standards it applies-has amended its regulations to permit low level irradiation for certain foods and high level irradiation of spices and herbs. Between 1958 and 1981, 24 countries approved the irradiation treatment of some 40 different foods. For example, Canada and the United States of America both permit the irradiation of wheat and that is as reported by the United States Institute of Food Technologists. The number of countries has since increased to 29 as of last year.


Senator Haines —That is not what he asked.


Senator Macklin —Is ANSTO's involvement necessary?


Senator GARETH EVANS —I am not able to go into any more details about the particular projects in China or anywhere else that have been talked about.


Senator Macklin —Is ANSTO's involvement necessary for the importation and use of cobalt 60?


Senator GARETH EVANS —ANSTO is the repository in this country of the greatest accumulated knowledge of nuclear science and technology expertise. It is an organisation which has been involved in this technology and in this pure science for a long time now and that suggestion is nonsensical, given the essentially emotional rather than reasoned character of the debate on this subject at this stage. The cryptonite lobby is much in evidence in any uranium debate but I have never seen it more in evidence than in the context of food irradiation. There may be issues deserving the justification of further research and report. The Government accepts that and it has set in train the particular investigations that I have referred to. The point that I make about the width and the extent of the use of this technology and its acceptance by reputable international standard-setting organisations is simply to put this debate into context and not allow the issues and the emotional responses already generated to be left hanging in the air.

Obviously there is much more that can and needs to be said in a debate in the Parliament describing the technology. I have a page or two of briefing notes and I can chatter away, if honourable senators want to know, about caesium 137 and cobalt 60. But I do not propose to do that because it is a debate that is more appropriately left for another time. Certainly the Atomic Energy Commission has been involved in this, both in its internal projects and in being the government arm assisting in the sponsorship and implementation of these international programs. There is no intention of withdrawing from the involvement in those programs at this stage. It is completely consistent with the work that has been done to date and it is completely consistent with all known and presently applicable international standards. The onus of proof at the moment in terms of the nature, degree, extent and character of this involvement, is very much on those who would want to argue against it rather than vesting in the agency which, as I have said, is continuing a course of action that has been going on for many years. Beyond that I am afraid that I am just not in a position, for the reasons I have already explained, to contribute anything further to this debate.