NGOs accuse WHO of ignoring evidence relating to food irradiation

Ahead of the Environment Committee vote in the European Parliament on 4-5 November, a group of NGOs published a report, explaining that the World Health Organisation has ignored evidence doubting the safety of irradiated food for human consumption.

In line with the recommendations of the Breyer-report (EURACTIV, 10 September 2002), the NGO representatives feel that

  • The World Health Organisation (WHO) has abandoned its original research agenda approved in 1961, on the basis of which wide range of experiments should have been conducted to assess the safety of irradiated foods;
  • The results of the EU-funded research, currently under way, that may or may not prove that irradiation promotes the development of certain cancer-causing chemicals in the human body, should be considered before making a decision to add foodstuffs to the irradiation list;
  • The Scientific Committee for Food (European Commission) has been giving low priority to food irradiation;
  • More surveys, like the one carried out by the UK Food Standards Agency, should be conducted. This UK government survey found that a high percentage of foodstuffs, including dietary supplements, shrimps as well as herbs and spices were illegally irradiated;
  • Due to the lack of monitoring in most European countries, enforcement of the irradiation legislation is missing;
  • Irradiation is considered by some as a substitute for food hygiene.


The three NGOs feel that the World Health Organisation does not safeguard world health when it comes to food irradiation. They would like to see the Parliamentary Environment Committee adopt the Breyer-report in its present state.

MEP Hiltrud Breyer would not like to see the current list of irradiated foodstuff extended, instead she would support a safer substitute for chemical fumigation. She warns not to allow irradiation replace food hygiene. The MEP would consider more recent and a higher number of European studies before deciding.

Companies that provide "electron beam processing", likeSureBeamfrom the USA, argue that irradiation is a good solution to destroy food-borne bacteria, such as E. coli, Listeria, Campylobacter and Salmonella. Hence they promote the method as a tool to provide consumers with safe and high quality food.


On 8 October, three NGOs (Public Citizen,The Food Commission (UK), andActive Consumers Denmark), presented a report, titled "Bad Taste -- The disturbing truth about the World Health Organization's endorsement of food irradiation". The rapporteur on behalf of the European Parliament's Environment Committee, MEPHiltrud Breyer(Greens/EFA, D) gave general support to their findings.

Ionising radiation (irradiation) is a method used to increase shelf life, kill insects and destroy bacteria. Irradiation is commended by international bodies (World Health Organisation, Food and Agriculture Organisation and Codex Alimentarius) as a safe food processing method that can reduce the risk of food poisoning and preserve foods without damaging human health.

The currently effective food irradiation legislation in the EU lists only one food category for irradiation treatment: "dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings". The Commission was asked to come with a proposal to complete this positive list of foodstuffs, to be adopted through the co-decision procedure.


The European Parliament currently discusses whether or not to extend the list of foodstuffs that can be treated with irradiation. The Environment Committee is expected to vote on the Breyer-report on 4-5 November.


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