The European Commission yesterday released the results of an investigative report into the use and labelling of food irradiation in Europe. Out of more than 6,500 food samples checked for irradiation, 1.5 per cent were found to have been incorrectly labelled. In addition, there is evidence to suggest that irradiation has been inappropriately used on dietary supplements in the UK - sparking calls for more research in Member States.
The report - which includes information on whether irradiated food placed on the EU market is correctly labelled - is based on the results of checks undertaken by national authorities in the 15 Member States. In general, the report indicated a high level of compliance with the requirements of the EU food irradiation Directive.
However, the United Kingdom authorities found evidence of irradiation in 42 per cent of certain dietary supplements. As most of these supplements cannot be irradiated legally in the EU, the Commission has asked the other Member States to check this particular sector.
David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs, said: "This report helps us to identify where we should focus our attention in future as regards irradiated food, to ensure that the rules are respected and that consumers are properly informed."
The irradiation of dried aromatic herbs and spices is authorised across the whole of the EU - with all other foodstuffs banned from this treatment. Five Member States (Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, UK) also allow the marketing of certain irradiated foods, for example fresh and dried fruits and vegetables, poultry, shrimps, fish or frog legs, on their national territory.
Directive 1999/2/EC requires all irradiated foods to be labelled with the words "irradiated" or "treated with ionising radiation" to allow consumers to make an informed choice. This labelling requirement also applies to irradiated food ingredients, present in small amounts in compound foods.
The Directive also states that the irradiation of food can only take place in facilities approved by the competent authorities of Member States, and that such facilities must provide information on the amounts of foods treated. Member States are required to report to the Commission on an annual basis.
The report released this week compiles the results of these checks for the period September 2000 to December 2001. In this period, only six Member States gave approval to facilities on their territory to irradiate foods (Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France, Netherlands, UK). The individual reports of the Member States indicate that the facilities mostly complied with the requirements of the Directive.
Eight Member States (Austria, Germany, Finland, Greece, Ireland, Netherlands, Sweden, UK) performed checks on foods placed on the market. The results show that only a few irradiated products on the market are incorrectly labelled. These products are herbs, spices or foods containing herbs or spices, frog legs, shrimps and vegetables.
In the United Kingdom, however, the authorities found that 42 per cent of certain dietary supplements are irradiated (aloe vera, alfalfa, cat's claw, devil's claw, garlic, ginger, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, guarana, kava kava, saw palmetto, silymarin, turmeric). As the treatment of these products except garlic and ginger by ionising radiation is not allowed in the EU, the Commission has asked the other Member States to check specifically this sector, in order to ensure that the requirements of the Directive are respected.
Irradiation, used to prolong the shelf life of food products and/or to reduce health hazards, is a physical treatment of food with high-energy, ionising radiation. Although an accepted manufacturing process in the USA, the European consumer remains cynical.