CONSUMER VIEWPOINTS ON FOOD IRRADIATION
Keynote Address at the ASEAN Workshop on Food Iradiation, Organised by
the ASEAN Food Handling Bureau in collaboration with the Atomic Energy Commission
of Thailand under the auspices of the ASEAN - COFAF Sub-Committee on Food Handling
held in Bangkok Thailand from the 25th - 28th November 1985
My task is to share with you and perhaps provoke you with the real concerns of many consumers and consumer groups on this issue. I hope at least to help all of us ask the right questions.
I speak from the perspective of the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU), a non-profit, non-party political foundation that represents the interests of consumers worldwide. It consists of some 1,140 organizations in over 50 countries of the world in the North, South, East and West. IOCU also represents the interest of the consumers in the UN system and enjoys consultative status with many of its various organs and agencies. I shall also speak from the additional perspective of a Third World person active in consumer public affairs issues over the last two decades.
As I am neither a food technologist, a nuclear scientist nor a chemist, I know I will be forgiven if my vocabulary does not involve MRAD (mega tads), KRAD (kilo tads), Bg (Becquivel), or if I do not dabble in dosimetry calculations, or even expand on unique radiolytic products (URPs). You will have, I am sure, ample doses of that over the next few days.
It is extremely important that you are familiar with the consumer perspective. The consumer perspective involves two kinds of parallel understandings: an appreciation of consumers rights which are an integral part of human rights; and an awareness of consumer responsibilities.
There are now eight consumer rights, which are widely accepted:
- Basic Needs - The right to basic goods and services which guarantee survival:
adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation.
- Safety - The right to be protected against the marketing of goods or the
provision of services that are hazardous to health and life.
- Information - The right to be protected against dishonest or misleading
advertising or labelling. And the right to be given the facts and information
needed to make an informed choice.
- Choice - The right to choose products and services at competitive prices
with an assurance of satisfactory quality.
- Representation - The right to express consumer interests in the making and
execution of government policy.
- Redress - The right to be compensated for misrepresentation, shoddy goods
or unsatisfactory services.
- Consumer Education - The right to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary
to be an informed consumer.
- Healthy Environment - The right to live and work in an environment which is neither threatening nor dangerous and which permits a life of dignity and well-being.
The concept of food irradiation can be viewed in the context of each of these rights. Rights must not only be actively exercised, but they must also go with responsibilities.
Five consumer responsibilities are now considered an integral part of the active consumer personality:
- Critical Awareness - The responsibility to be more alert and questioning
about the use of and the price and quality of goods and services we use.
- Action - The responsibility to assert ourselves and act to ensure that we
get a fair deal. As long as we remain passive consumers, we will continue
to be exploited.
- Social Concern - The responsibility to be aware of the impact of our consumption
on other citizens, especially disadvantaged or powerless groups, whether in
the local, national or international community.
- Environmental Awareness - The responsibility to understand the environmental
consequences of our consumption. We should recognize our individual and social
responsibility to conserve natural resources and protect the earth for future
- Solidarity - The responsibility to organize together as consumers to develop the strength and influence to promote and protect our interests.
This then is the framework you have to reckon with. It is a growing force. It is also a force for happiness. It is not an anti-technology, anti-business lobby. We are for good business and for good technology. Our interest is to ensure that the consumer interest is protected and promoted. Never forget that all of us are consumers.
Consumer Attitudes and Concerns
"Is there life for food irradiation?" Consumer groups are now increasingly engaged in this debate and a variety of positions is emerging. Three kinds of reactions can be detected. First, people are serious about this subject. People are talking of this "new menace" and that "Nuke is coming to dinner". Secondly, there is a significant amount of scepticism, and thirdly, there is a lingering suspicion.
The first reaction of seriousness is an obvious reaction. As more governments become interested, as UN agencies give their caresses of approval and as industry increases its pressure, the lingering concerns and unanswered questions of the last two decades gain a new significance and urgency. This reaction is going to grow, fuelled by those who are concerned with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and those who are concerned with the life force of food, and those who see irradiation as a deadly bombardment. The second reaction is that of scepticism - a scepticism born out of past failures in technology, in testing, in governments' ability to enforce, and unanswered questions of safety, nutrition and even validity. The third reaction, suspicion, is not just due to or against past failures but a deep concern that vested interests, faced with an underutilized (and unloved) industry are seeking out new markets and new profits, not because of its real value, but because of technological and commercial imperatives.
Some will say that irradiation is just more toys for the nuclear game players, and others who distrust the 'unholy' alliance between industry, scientists and governments in this matter that their fear objectively is unlikely. Because of the pressure, this 'unholy' alliance can bear on UN agencies, some even question the credibility of these endorsements. One way of evaluating irradiation is to look at three aspects: its efficiency; its efficacy or effectiveness; and its validity - its necessity in the first place. The problem of efficiency with this process is simple to comprehend. The problem often is that it is too damn efficient! The problem with its effectiveness is that its real cost to society and health is not entirely clear and it may create more problems than it solves.
With regard to validity, there are many burning questions whether there is really any usefulness of this process beyond very careful, selective, controlled instances; its relevance to meet the needs of the small farmers as against special or elitist demands; the impact of centralised and capital intensive 'quick fix' technology and the, creation of dependencies in technology, the transport, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes; the ability of our institutions to monitor a proliferation of irradiators. There are many difficult and complex challenges.
We certainly need to banish from our thoughts that food irradiation is going
to be a panacea for our food problems. Hunger in the world is much more a political,
social and cultural problem than a technical one. We need original independent
research, both of safety and health aspects and of the social and economic impact
by bodies independent of government and industry, if we are to break the credibility
gap that exists. Third World governments have to be particularly concerned about
Is there then a life for food irradiation? It is existing and it is being used. We can expect to see an even greater use of it. For most consumer groups, it is still and will be a caveat emptor - 'consumers beware'!
So that we can continue our constructive dialogue, I would like to share with you ten questions that are uppermost in our minds.
Questions About Food Irradiation That Consumer Groups Want Answers To
- How really safe is the process in the Iight of studies that have indicated
- What are the prospects of creating mutant and resistant bacteria?
- Will the process mask or divert resources from serious attention to hygiene
and structural environmental public health problems?
- What is the effect on nutrients and in particular for staple foods?
- What kind of control enforcement and monitoring can be expected taking into
account costs, bureaucratic inefficiencies and incompetency and even downright
- What kind of worker safety standards will apply and realistically enforced?
- How carefully is the transport, storage and handling and disposal going
to be done?
- What will be the impact of this technology on small farmers and small-scale,
indigenous, community-based preserving and local marketing and distribution
system in the context of centralization and monopolistic tendencies?
- What kind of new dependencies will be created with the proliferation of
the process in the context of self-reliance?
- What are the total real costs taking into account foreign exchange, capitalization,
opportunity, social and environmental costs?
I urge you to keep these questions foremost in your mind for your deliberations this week.
Three thousand five hundred years ago the Hittites of Anatolia had a kind of Food Law with two principles:
"Thou shall not poison thy neighbour's fat" and "Thou shall not bewitch thy neighbour's fat:'
The first law concerned health and safety. The second law concerned misleading and cheating. As it was then, so it is now (as stated in the Codex Alimentarius Commission's Europeaus):
"The supreme law in honest food trade is the well being of the consumer, his protection against damage to health and his protection against misguidance and fraud. All economic and technical considerations are subordinated to this supreme law".
Whether food irradiation has a real big future will depend on your honesty, on independent research and how things go when the process is already permitted. It will also depend on our ability to manage technologies which outrun and frustrate real development in social, economic and environmental terms - technologies that can be violent, manipulative and wasteful. That is the real challenge for all of us. I wish you every success in meeting this challenge and assure you of our constructive engagement in any work that is for the well being of the consumer.
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