Mail Irradiation Threat
Answered by: Conrad Richter
Question from: Jim Mumm
Posted on: November 15, 2001

I’m the co-owner of a sprouting seed company located in Saskatchewan, Canada.

I’m writing about the possibility of the US post office and Canada Post installing mail irradiation equipment in some of their centres. Canada Post is actively considering the idea. The USPS is apparently going ahead with the idea. This is to prevent anthrax mailing.

Unfortunately this equipment would also sterilise or damage any live seeds (also film and electronics) in the mail. This is a huge concern to us as we send thousands of mail seed parcels a year, and we don’t have an economical alternative in our small town.

Yes, this is big concern to Richters too. We are monitoring the situation closely. There is an article about the irradiation threat in the October 2001 issue of the Richters HerbLetter on our website.

According to an expert I spoke to at Titan Scan Technologies, the company that is supplying the equipment to the U.S. post office, the type of radiation equipment will be of the electron beam type. The beam density contemplated is 42 Grays which is much higher than that used to sterilize spices (30 Grays) and very much more than that used to sterilize produce (1 Gray). This rate of 42 Grays is necessary because the anthrax spores are particularly resistant to radiation (compared to other bacterial spores). At this rate here is no question that seeds and plants will be destroyed by the radiation.

Unlike xray- or uv-radiation, there is no practical shield that can be used in the packaging against electron beam radiation.

So far (as of Nov. 2001), only the U.S. post office has moved to install radiation equipment; in Canada, a spokesman for Canada Post was quoted as saying that Canada Post is looking at its options, including the possibility of irradiation, but as far as we know no decision has been made. Our guess is that as long as no cases of anthrax turn up in Canada, Canada Post will hold off on installing radiation equipment.

Ball Seed in the U.S. has announced that it is shipping all seeds by UPS or FedEx in response to the U.S. plan to irradiation the mail. We expect that others shipping to or in the U.S. will be forced to follow suit, until it becomes clearer what systems will be put in place for sensistive mail.

According to the Mailorder Gardening Association, there was a meeting of the USPS Mailers Technical Advisory Committee on November 8 concerning the irradiation plan. We have not heard yet what was the outcome of that meeting. We are not a member of the MGA so we would not normally be privy to the MGA’s findings.

I’m looking for any ideas to head off this move, or at the very least to allow a separate stream of sensitive mail to bypass any irradiation.

There has been some talk among U.S. shippers that the U.S. post office will create a separate stream of mail for sensistive items mailed by known mailers. Obviously this would necessitate a major change in operations which must be proved to be secure to reassure those concerned about terrorist activities, but we are skeptical of how quickly such a system will be developed and how effective it will be to safeguard sensistive mail. In any case, the talk is only at the local business representative level of the U.S. post office, and we have already seen how local reps are misinformed about other aspects of the irradiation issue.

So far I’ve come up with these possibilities:

1 - Contact our MLA, Minister responsible for Canada Post, and Prime minister’s office (or US equivalents) to express our concerns.

This is a federal issue, so you would have to contact your Member of Parliament, not your provincial MLA. Yes, we agree that this should be done. We intend to contact our MP.

2 - Contact mail order seed companies in Canada and US for co-ordinated efforts and to get ideas. Is there an association of these companies?

The Canadian Seed Trade Association is aware of the matter but at a teleconference I attended recently it seemed to me that the CSTA did not fully understand the risk that its members face. Irradiation was not even on the agenda, though I did bring the issue up. Like the spokesperson from McKenzie Seeds in Winnipeg who was quoted in the Globe and Mail recently as saying that the company did not believe that there was much risk to seeds, I think that the CSTA has not fully woken up to the danger, or at least not as of two weeks ago when the conference was held.

(To be fair, the CSTA is fighting a battle with potentially more at stake for Canadian companies. The U.S. has announced that it will begin requiring phytosanitary certificates on all seed shipments from Canada starting on January 22, 2002. This was one of the focusses of the teleconference meeting.)

3 - Talk to Canada Post (or USPS) representatives regarding the possible loss of revenue if seed (and electronics and film) shipping by mail becomes impossible.

Agreed. On the Canadian side we need to establish what decisions if any have been made vis-a-vis irradiation. On the U.S. side we do know that the decision to install radiation equipment has already been made; so we need to establish how the system will work and what measures are being taken to safeguard sensistive mail.

Any suggestions, etc. appreciated.

At Richters we are developing alternative plans for getting our seeds and plants to our customers. Even if the worst case scenario comes into being, we will still be able to deliver our products to our customers, though we may have to apply a delivery surcharge on some orders. As mentioned, we are closely monitoring the situation and will adjust our shipping policies on an as-needed basis.

On a limited scale we have tried to inform gardeners and garden writers on the Internet in the hope that they might help add political pressure. But my impression is that there is not a great deal of alarm about the prospects of not being able to buy seeds and plants by mail. It seems that people are resigned to buying locally or pay the extra shipping charges for getting product by alternative means.

We are trying to make contacts with Agriculture Canada and other federal government officials to see what lobbying efforts are or can be made. We are hoping to open up an information channel to the government’s discussions with the U.S. on this issue. If you and other seed companies are interested, we would be happy to share information; and possibly we would participate in any coordinated lobbying action. If you have received interest from other mailorder companies perhaps we could start something by sharing information by email.

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