It could be a key plank in Australia’s new approach to fruit fly control but irradiation draws equally passionate supporters and protesters. ASHLEY WALMSLEY takes a look at the issues surrounding irradiated fresh produce.
AUSTRALIAN vegetable and fruit growers have effectively waved goodbye to their two biggest fruit fly treatment chemicals, dimethoate and fenthion.
The traditional practice of cover spraying to achieve fruit fly free status has been hard to let go for some, and jeopardised important markets for others.
In its simplest form, food irradiation involves deliberately exposing food to electromagnetic radiation energy.
While not considered a destroyer of insects, the treatment guarantees the sterility of fruit flies when done to the correct levels.
Although the technology has been around for many years and is used on food in more than 40 countries worldwide, there are significant hurdles to industry embracing the treatment method.
The use of irradiation as a post-harvest treatment could open doors for Australian horticulture, establishing new export markets or developing interstate trade.
There are currently 11 tropical fruits approved for irradiation: breadfruit, carambola, custard apple, longan, lychee, mango, mangosteen, papaya, rambutan, and persimmons.
Last year, the trade in irradiated tropical fruit grew to more than 1000 tonnes of mangoes, papayas and lychees.
The Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) review and subsequent suspension of dimethoate basically stopped major exports of capsicums and tomatoes to New Zealand.
In March this year, Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) gave approval for tomatoes and capsicums to be irradiated for export across the Tasman, as an alternative to chemical treatments.
Before the trade commences though, the New Zealand Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) must first adjust its Import Health Standards (IHS), which is expected to happen soon.
MPI food and beverage manager Glen Neal said the department is currently reviewing the changes to the relevant IHS but expected that trade could commence in August.
Plenty of support
Both government and agriculture bodies have backed the technology.
Ausveg has heavily pushed the method as an alternative to chemicals. The vegetable representative group provided growers with information on the treatment method during its Ausveg Roadshows in 2012.
Food irradiation advocate, Dr Peter Roberts, Radiation Advisory Services, New Zealand was one of the program’s speakers.
“What’s quite clear about irradiation is that it is the least familiar and the least understood of all the potential options,” Dr Roberts said.
According to Dr Roberts, of all the tour stops, the growers who attended the Ausveg Roadshow in Bundaberg and Bowen were the most interested in the technology, possibly because of the implications for tomatoes and capsicums.
He said those further south had more of a low-key interest, regarding it as something that might affect them in the future.
In the eyes of the public
Perhaps the biggest battle facing the further implementation of fresh produce irradiation is public awareness.
Retailers have expressed concern over public resistance to the very term “irradiation” and a consumer backlash against them.
Woolworths declared it is not willing to “go it alone” on the introduction of irradiated produce to the public.
When questioned about the company’s position at the Horticulture Australia Limited (HAL) November 2012 Forum in Sydney, Paul Harker, head of produce, Woolworths said the industry needed a united voice on the subject before it proceeds.
“It’s going to be an extremely emotional product and we are not going to stand alone trying to convince Australian consumers that there is nothing wrong with irradiation,” Mr Harker said.
“We’ve communicated that back to industry and we said unless there is a concerted campaign that is led not only by the people peddling irradiation as an alternative, but unless the government and everyone else is involved in actually talking to the customer about it, the last thing I am going to do is plonk it on my shelf because I can tell you that fresh produce sales will die. People won’t shop there.”
An Aldi spokesperson said the supermarket chain had nothing to say about the topic.
Fairfax Agricultural Media contacted Coles for comment but received no reply.
Last year, Ausveg commissioned a Klein Partnership research study into consumer attitudes toward irradiated produce.
The research found that just over half (56 per cent) of respondents were aware of methods used to control insect pests on fruit and vegetables.
A total of 81pc of respondents said they were aware that chemical spraying and dipping was used as a treatment method.
Just over a third (33pc) were aware of irradiation.
The survey results showed that even when informed, irradiation was not the preferred treatment method among consumers.
Although grounded in concerns over public health, the act of suspending dimethoate and fenthion increased public suspicion over what chemicals are still being used.
The Klein Partnership research found wariness of the products increased in survey subjects when told the names of the chemicals.
In response to other treatment methods, methyl bromide received some negative reactions when labeled as such, while cold disinfestation was found to be the “least intimidating” method with some saying it sounded similar to refrigeration.
The survey found 88pc of respondents would accept cold disinfestation as a treatment method, while 42pc said they would accept irradiation.
“Interpretively, for irradiation to be successful, it would require significant investment in public education,” the report said.
Murray Lynch, CEO of the sole irradiation business currently in Australia, Steritech, said generally, consumers are not as welcoming of the application new technologies to food production as they are in other areas.
“Consistent with this attitude, consumers can tend to be uncertain and wary of food irradiation when first introduced to the technology,” he said.
“This is usually due to questions about product safety and quality derived from the mistaken association of the technology with radioactivity.
“Nonetheless, where there are clear benefits to them as consumers – particularly in terms of food safety, quality and price – people tend to be positive towards food irradiation.
“This is backed by consumer attitude studies from around the world.”
Survey groups are one thing, the real world consumer is another.
Whether they know it or not, some Australians have already been test cases for irradiated fresh produce within interstate trials.
In the later months of 2011, two trial shipments of Queensland mangoes were sent to Hobart and Melbourne.
“Irradiated mangoes were sold at retail without any great drama- no protests, no returns and no problems,” Dr Roberts said.
Dr Roberts said negative issues over irradiated food entering the commercial market were largely imagined problems than reality.
“I don’t think there is a consumer issue,” he said.
“I think there is an issue with retailers thinking there is going to be an issue with consumers but wherever irradiated foods have gone into retail trade, there has just been no problem. People have bought it and repurchased it.
“Despite the good and continuing consumer purchase of irradiated mangoes and lychee in NZ, with no negative response, the big Australian supermarket chains remain eager to be second, not first in line to put product on their shelves.”
FSANZ requires that all irradiated produce sold in Australia is labelled.
In New Zealand, some irradiated vegetables and fruit hold a sticker featuring the International Radura Symbol accompanied by the wording: “Irradiated to protect the environment.”
After FSANZ granted the irradiation approval, Tomatoes NZ called on its Government to legislate that all irradiated Australian produce is labelled.
New Zealand Minister for Food Safety Nikki Kaye rejected the Tomatoes NZ request but said she would ensure all irradiated produce is clearly labelled at point-of-sale.
While Tomatoes NZ says it does not have an issue with the safety or efficacy of irradiation, chair Alasdair MacLeod said the group’s aim was to make sure New Zealand consumers receive the appropriate information about where their food comes from and how it has been treated.
“Clear labelling at point-of-sale will ensure consumers can make an informed choice, which is their right,” Mr Macleod said.
“The power for change now lies with consumers. If the information at point-of-sale doesn’t clearly identify whether your tomatoes have been irradiated, then we urge New Zealanders to ask their local retailer. No New Zealand tomatoes are irradiated.”
Peter Silcock, chief executive, Horticulture New Zealand backed the call for stringent labeling of irradiated produce.
“Kiwis deserve to know if the tomatoes and capsicums they are eating are from Australia and irradiated. Irradiation treatment concerns a lot of people,” Mr Silcock said.
“Kiwis do not get enough information about the origin of the food they buy and eat. Our marketplace is not the same as Australia.”
Opponent to irradiation Food Irradiation Watch warned New Zealand shoppers to be on the look out for Queensland tomatoes.
“Food Irradiation Watch advises shoppers wishing to avoid irradiated produce to look down at the produce to see if there is a sticker and then look up to see if there is a sign,” spokesperson Robin Taubenfeld said.
“Good food doesn’t need irradiating. Irradiated food does require labelling. The fight is now on to make sure that labelling laws are not only kept in place, but improved to ensure that consumers have the right to choose.”
A question of money?
Cost is cited as the other major drawback to irradiation.
Steritech said the cost of establishing an irradiation facility varies according to its size and the technology deployed.
It said European estimates place the cost of setting up such a plant as being somewhere in the vicinity of $15-20 million.
In his Ausveg Roadshow presentation, Dr Roberts said actual irradiation treatment costs about 5-7c/kg but Steritech said this is an approximate target price, while the real cost is subject to variation based on volume.
But Dr Roberts said the outlay and even ongoing costs could be negated by the securing of current and new export markets.
“It’s not as cheap as an insecticide treatment but when you have to look at methyl bromide or cold storage and heat treatments, it’s actually very difficult to compare directly these costs so it’s fair to say it is at least cost competitive,” he said.
“Think about it- $10 million compared to the value of horticulture trade which relies on crossing borders within Australia or going outside the country.”
According to Ausveg, fruit fly costs Australian growers more than $100 million each year and affects about 250 fruits and vegetables.
The bigger issue, according to Dr Roberts, is exactly where extra irradiation facilities would be built, considering the large distances between Australian’s main fruit and vegetable growing regions.
With experts and growers alike generally agreeing that there will never be another two products like dimethoate and fenthion, the industry continues to investigate all possibilities.
Ausveg chief executive officer, Richard Mulcahy said the APVMA’s rulings had created a shift in thinking.
“In Australia, up until recently, the cost of treating food in this way has been economically unviable, however as certain other treatments become unavailable to growers, irradiation has become an important option, and one that will become more affordable for food producers to access as more and more produce is treated in this fashion,” Mr Mulcahy said.
If nothing else, irradiation has been placed firmly on the table for discussion.