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Friday, 23 March, 2001, 14:48 GMT
Shops breaking irradiation food laws
Prawns on a plate
Irradiated prawns have been under the microscope again
By BBC Consumer Affairs correspondent Nicola Carslaw

A BBC investigation has found evidence that irradiated food is on sale in leading British supermarkets and health food stores, breaking UK and European laws.

Supporters of food irradiation say it is a safe way of killing harmful bugs, such as E.coli.

But critics say that - like genetic modification - its effects are unproven and the technique could be used to mask poor quality food.

At the laboratories of Norwich-based food analysts Lincolne Sutton and Wood (LSW), irradiated prawns have been under the microscope yet again.

They were bought by Trading Standards officers at two of Britain's leading supermarkets.

Irradiation is used in some countries to kill food bacteria and extend shelf life.

But there is no current licence to import irradiated seafood to the UK - and the treatment is only licensed for herbs and spices which must be labelled as irradiated.

Out of 18 samples of shellfish sent for analysis in the last five years, Trading Standards officers in Suffolk have found seven were irradiated, and therefore on sale illegally in the UK.

No company has yet been prosecuted.

Suffolk Trading Standards officer Dave Pearsons said enforcement was first carried out by writing to people with advice on the law.

"If that advice is not taken we might prosecute," he said.

"I think the manufacturers and retailers are not aware that the food is being irradiated."

Cosmetic sterilising

There is only one plant in the UK licensed to irradiate herbs and spices.

But because of consumer resistance it only uses its source of radiation to sterilise medical equipment and ingredients for cosmetics.

So any food found to be irradiated in the UK must have been processed abroad.

There is no question that if used correctly, food irradiation can allow products like herbs and spices to be rendered safer for sale.

But LSW's Peter Brown, the public analyst used by Suffolk Trading Standards, said there were concerns it could also be misused to allow disreputable people to market food that they would otherwise not be able to sell.

The BBC investigation into the spread of irradiated food ingredients in the UK started in the laboratories of the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre, in East Kilbride.

Twenty-eight samples - bought at random from retailers in England and Scotland - were sent to the labs.

First they were screened to measure the amount of light emitted when exposed to infra-red radiation.

When four of the foods registered positive, the BBC had them double-checked using another recognised test method.

Positive again. A Realeat vegeburger mix with no artificial additives bought in Holland and Barrett, a Sharwoods mild curry powder; a Fiddes Payne Spice It Up, on sale in major supermarkets, and some seasonings in a Sainsbury's French herb roule cheese.

Label lies

Dr David Sanderson, who developed the testing methods, said one or more ingredients within each product had been irradiated. But they all should have been labelled as such.

"Four samples out of 28 is a rather higher proportion than one would expect," he said.

"The worry is that if irradiated foods aren't labelled throughout the supply chain, the manufacturer or retailer might not be able to trace ingredients back in the event of a product recall."

Perhaps even more worrying than not labelling at all is a label that lies.

BBC investigators bought a bottle of Gin Seng that actually clearly stated "non-irradiated" on the label.

But analysis of the capsules sold in Holland and Barrett registered positive. They were irradiated.

Holland and Barrett said it had taken immediate steps to withdraw the two products involved from sale.

A Food Standards Agency spokeswoman said it was unacceptable to mislead consumers with no labels or inaccurate ones.

She said it was lucky there was no food safety issue here, but it was denying choice to the consumer. The agency said it was now planning a nationwide investigation of its own into the irradiation of food.

The companies said they were deeply disappointed because their suppliers had assured them their products had not been irradiated.

All said they would be investigating.

Sainsbury's is reserving judgement until after it has carried out its own tests.

Jackie Dowthwaite of the Food and Drink Federation, said manufacturers were very disappointed.

"We don't use irradiated foods in the UK even where we could because consumers don't like it. The manufacturers involved are launching investigations into how this has happened."

Even though the process of irradiation is widely acknowledged to be safe, there is no evidence that UK consumers are ready to accept it. So we rely on the labels to make our choice.

But as the BBC's tests have shown, these are not all that they seem.

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