The Green Party does not have a good record when it comes to scepticism. In 2002, party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons was an ungracious winner of our bent spoon award for her support of “etheralised cosmic-astral influences” as a means of eradicating possums.

“They can do whatever they like with their silly bent spoon,” she said. “Those people are completely obsessed, and I am not interested in giving them any further coverage or credibility.”

Green MP Sue Kedgley, too, is no friend of scepticism. She is pushing for so-called alternative medicine to be funded by taxpayers. She wants statutory registration for naturopaths and other “complementary health practitioners” as a step toward integrating them into the public health system. In other words, Kedgley does not know the difference between quackery – which can be a matter of life and death – and scientific medicine.

She has named activist Jeremy Rifkin as one of her heroes. Rifkin is hostile to science. The late Harvard palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould said one of Rifkin’s books is “full of ludicrous, simple errors” and is “anti-intellectual propaganda masquerading as scholarship. I don’t think I have ever read a shoddier work.” Fortune magazine concluded: “Rifkin is a bit of a nut.” In 1998, Kedgley published Eating Safely in a Toxic World. The book shows an author who is suspicious of science and rationality. Her version of logic is evident on page 8, where Kedgley complains that non-dairy creamers contain no dairy products!

She has scared the public for years with spurious arguments against irradiated food. In 1999, Associate Health Minister Tuariki Delamere said all irradiated food would be labelled, “So if Sue Kedgley doesn’t want to eat it, she doesn’t have to eat it.” But this concession was not good enough for Kedgley. Her response was: “Is he saying we could lace food with arsenic, and it’s okay, as long as it’s labelled?” She complained that consumers “do not want to eat food that has been nuked.” On National Radio, she kept talking of “radioactive food,” despite being corrected by the interviewer.

New Zealand has approved the irradiation of tropical fruits like mangoes, lychees and papayas. According to Kedgley, however, irradiation “can cause the formation of carcinogenic chemicals in mangoes and pawpaw.” She claimed: “At the doses being considered for commercial use on vegetables and grains, irradiation could stimulate the production of aflatoxins – potent liver cancer-causing agents… .” According to Sue Kedgley, then, irradiated food can cause cancer.

In fact, research has led the World Health Organization, the US Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association to approve food irradiation. It kills not just E. coli but also all the nasty germs and parasites that slip into our food supply.

Human skin and intestines crawl with ordinary E. coli. But a few uncommon strains of the bacteria – especially the notorious E. coli O157:H7 – produce toxins. Ingest these toxic bacteria, and you suffer watery diarrhoea and stomach pain. You feel miserable, but these symptoms don’t usually require medical attention – at least, in developed countries. In some cases, however, the toxins trigger the destruction of blood cells and cause renal failure, and can be deadly in children. Thus, food poisoning is a serious risk only for vulnerable populations, like the very young. For the rest of us, it is a rare annoyance caused mainly by inadequately cooked chicken or pork.

Meat is the most common source of E. coli O157:H7, but raw milk, vegetables, and fruit juice have carried it in some outbreaks. The bug lives in the guts of about 1% of cattle and contaminates meat when stomach contents spill where they shouldn’t during slaughter. It also contaminates produce if farm wastewater enters the irrigation supply.

The good news is that rare meat doesn’t have to be dangerous. Irradiators containing cobalt-60 or another radioactive source bombard food with gamma rays, killing bacteria and parasites. The radiation disrupts DNA, which germs need to survive. Lower doses will pasteurise food, that is, will kill the disease-causing organisms. Higher doses of radiation will completely sterilise food. The process is perfectly safe, leaves no funny taste or appearance, and prevents illness from E. coli O157:H7, salmonella, beef tapeworms, fish parasites, and trichinae in pork. Astronauts, patients in many hospitals, and people in dozens of countries eat irradiated food.

Gamma rays do not make food radioactive. Moreover, in a six-year study, scientists fed dogs and other animals irradiated chicken and found no evidence of increased cancer or other toxic effects. Other research found no harmful effects in humans who eat irradiated food.

Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Kedgley pose as people who think outside the square. But they need to make sure their thinking squares with the evidence. Dr Raymond Richards is a senior lecturer in History and American Studies at Waikato University. He can be reached at

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