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New Zealand Can Import Winter Tomatoes Thanks to Australia’s Food Irradiation Facility

(Photo: L. Potterton/IAEA)

The Bowen region is Australia’s largest winter producer of vegetables. Tomatoes are by far its biggest crop, totalling US $120 million a year. Yet, even though it could offer consumers access to fresh tomatoes in the winter, its export market has been extremely limited. The problem is the Queensland fruit fly, an aggressive pest that Australia once controlled with pesticides that are no longer allowed. However, thanks to a protocol in place that links Australia to New Zealand, tomato exporters have another option: irradiation. Australia irradiates the tomatoes to ensure there are no pests and New Zealand accepts irradiation as proof of insect control. The Joint FAO/IAEA Division has worked with Australia and other countries to bring irradiation to the fore as a suitable replacement for chemical treatments.

The timing is perfect. As Australia’s tomatoes are ripening, New Zealand’s tomatoes are going out of season. And because the two countries have agreed that irradiation is a safe and appropriate way to meet insect pest control requirements, New Zealand can import irradiated winter tomatoes and a host of other fresh produce from Australia’s orchards and fields.

Australia was the world’s first country to use irradiation as a phytosanitary measure in international trade. It started in 2004 with exports of mangoes and expanded to several other foods over the years. When its produce is sold in New Zealand, it is labelled as irradiated, and the amount sold is increasing steadily. In 2014, New Zealand consumers purchased some 2,000 tonnes of produce irradiated to protect their environment from invasive pests.

Irradiation has been used for decades to control bacterial growth and food-borne illnesses and to prevent spoilage. But Australia’s battle against the Queensland fruit fly is indicative of the more recent adoption and acceptance of irradiation as a viable way to combat the spread of insect pests that can hide in fresh fruits and vegetables destined for export markets. Initially used mainly on dry herbs and spices to combat food poisoning organisms, the process was declared safe for an array of foods in the 1980s by FAO and the World Health Organization (WHO). Further, it is increasingly recognized as a viable way to cut back on the need for potentially harmful and expensive chemical pesticides.

The technique has had slow uptake in the ensuing years because retailers feared that consumers equated the term “irradiation” with “radioactivity”, even though, in reality, food irradiation harnesses the energy in beams of photons, electrons or X-rays – a process similar to airport security screening. The food never comes into contact with radioactive material. The beams do the work.

"Australia, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, USA and Viet Nam currently have irradiation facilities to combat pests in fresh fruits and vegetables."
Carl Blackburn, Joint FAO/IAEA Division


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