Australia's and New Zealand's food ministers agreed to phase out ethylene oxide (used to disinfect certain foods) and to permit the limited use of food irradiation as a safer alternative for herbs, spices, and herbal teas.
The Australia New Zealand Food Standards Council (ANZFSC), meeting on September 13, decided that, in the long term, interests of public health and safety, the chemical ethylene oxide, used to disinfect some foods, must be completely phased out from the food supply by 1 October 2003.
The Council also approved the limited use of food irradiation of herbs, spices, and herbal infusions as a safe and effective replacement technology.
This is the first application to irradiate food since ANZFSC agreed to a food irradiation standard in 1999. The decision followed a stringent safety assessment by the Australia New Zealand Food Authority (ANZFA) over a ten-month period, which was subject to scientific peer review by local and international experts.
The safety assessment concluded that the treatment of herbs, spices and herbal infusions, with the stated doses of irradiation was safe.
However, ministers did not approve the irradiation of nuts. While it is considered a safe practice, they concluded on the scientific evidence available, that there was no technological need for the irradiation of nuts on quarantine grounds.
According to the ministers, irradiation has considerable benefits for consumers and industry, in preventing food poisoning and pest infestation and controlling weeds.
The safety assessment also took account of two studies by the World Health Organisation in 1994 and 1999, which confirm the safety of food irradiation.
Food irradiation has been used extensively overseas over the past two decades with no indication of safety problems and is currently permitted for use in food in over 40 countries worldwide. All irradiated foods will be required to be labelled, so that consumers can make an informed choice.
Ethylene oxide is used to disinfect herbs and spices. Its use is being phased out worldwide and replaced with alternatives such as food irradiation and steam treatment. To ensure the protection of public health and safety, the ministers agreed to maintain the current strict maximum level in herbs and spices for ethylene oxide of 20mg/kg.
A withholding period of three weeks will be required in the future to allow a reduction of any residues after treatment. This will ensure that these foods continue to be disinfected while a smooth transition to other safer and more sustainable technologies can occur.
According to the ministers, this chemical will be completely phased out over the next 2 years with no exemptions for stock-in-trade at the end of this period.
Ministers agreed to the need for a strong public information program about these issues to help consumers make informed choices.