Food Safety Update
September 28, 2008
The International Food Information Council (IFIC) reports that about one-third to one-half of consumers are aware or somewhat aware of the process of food irradiation. About two-thirds of those consumers indicate that they would be willing to purchase foods treated with this process. Additional research studies at leading universities show that with education, at least 80 to 85 percent of consumers are willing to purchase irradiated foods. Does this willingness translate into dollars?
Yes, says Ronald F. Eustice, Executive Director for the Minnesota Beef Council. Eustice says that irradiated ground beef and poultry accounts for 18 million pounds of ground beef sales annually – and that number is holding steady. Specifically, Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s, who irradiate 100% of their ground beef, have seen some nice increases in sales.
Irradiated produce sales are on the rise too. Annually, there are about 11 million pounds of irradiated produce marketed in the United States. Eight million pounds of that produce comes from Hawaii in the form of various tropical fruits. Other irradiated produce items, like mangos, come from India, with more tropical fruits coming from Thailand. One-third of commercial spices – 175 million pounds – are irradiated.
Food irradiation is actually the process of exposing food to an ionizing energy (gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams) to kill bacteria and extend shelf life without cooking or changing the food. A low dose of below one to 10kGy is usually sufficient to rid most foods of harmful bacteria.
The major benefit of food irradiation is greatly reducing, or even eliminating, the number of harmful organisms in a product. Other benefits include helping to keep produce from deteriorating, and helping to reduce the need for chemical fumigants in tropical produce by eliminating insects.
Certain items, like tropical fruits arriving from India or Thailand, must be irradiated to gain access to the U.S. This prevents foreign fruit flies from damaging domestic product, and allows consumers to enjoy items like imported mango, mangosteen and papaya. Currently, foods that have been irradiated carry the “radura” symbol at retail.
Food irradiation was given the stamp of approval in the United States in the early 1960s, and has since been approved for use in fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and seafood, oysters, roots and tubers, cereals, legumes, spices, food grade enzymes and dried vegetable seasonings. Most recently, the FDA approved the process for spinach and iceberg lettuce – something that Eustice says is a long overdue step in the right direction.
While minor chemical changes can occur when food is irradiated, Eustice says scientific evaluations have shown that the changes do not pose health risks. In fact, he says that most of the compounds created by irradiation are present naturally in other (non-irradiated) foods at levels many times greater than the levels generated by irradiation.
Irradiation also has the support or endorsement of every scientific organization that has taken a position, he says. And irradiation can be performed in a product’s final package, fresh or frozen, preventing the possibility of cross-contamination prior to treatment – and along the supply chain.
The process has become especially helpful in less-developed countries, where spoilage threatens a large percentage of the food supply. According to the WHO, food irradiation can help ensure a safer and more plentiful food supply when established guidelines and procedures are followed.
“Irradiation will help do more to alleviate hunger and suffering than any other technology we have available. It extends shelf life, prevents infestation of pests, and opens markets for products produced in countries that haven’t been able to export to the U.S. in almost two decades,” says Eustice. “There are more than 30 food irradiation facilities, mostly in Asia and Latin America, being installed mainly for the purpose of accessing the U.S. market.”
Mark Kastel, Co-Director of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, thinks that food marketers will have a tough sell when it comes to irradiation because consumers are concerned about treating their food with this process. Instead, he suggests that better care should be taken along the supply chain to eliminate the need for expensive technological fixes in the first place.
“Technologies like irradiation stand to lower the quality, safety, flavor, and nutrition of our food supply,” Kastel says. But Eustice disagrees. He emphasizes that irradiation must be employed in addition to proper sanitation and hygiene – and not instead of.
“I think certain activist groups have done more than their share to try and intimidate retailers and restaurants that attempt to serve irradiated foods,” says Eustice. “The safety of our food supply cannot and must not be held hostage by half-truths and misrepresentation by special interest groups.”
“They really don't want consumers to be fully empowered to make discerning decisions in the marketplace,” Kastel counters. “That's why they want to get rid of the strict labeling requirement.”
Whether or not the industry moves toward re-labeling the irradiation process (as something like “cold pasteurization”) remains to be seen. In the meantime, though irradiation can help promote food safety, it is not a substitute for safe food handling. Retailers should continue to communicate the standard food safety guidelines to their consumers, even when selling irradiated products.