When Will US, EU Accept Irradiated Food?

GLOBAL - Following a number of highly publicised outbreaks of food-borne infections in people in recent years, the prospects of food irradiation are looking better than ever. But just how near are the US and European Union to using the process widely for meat? Currently, meat may be irradiated in the US but rarely is, and new guidelines will be proposed in the EU later this year.
calendar icon 4 February 2009
clock icon 7 minute read

Before the recent revelation that tainted peanut butter could kill people, even before the spinach scare of three summers ago, the food industry in the United States made a proposal. It asked the government for permission to destroy germs in many processed foods by zapping them with radiation, according to International Herald Tribune.

That was about nine years ago, in the twilight of the Clinton administration. The government has taken limited action since.

After spinach tainted with a strain of E. coli killed three people and sickened more than 200 others in 2006, the US. Food and Drug Administration gave permission for irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce. The industry has yet to start using it. Meat irradiation is permitted but rarely used. Among common items on the grocery shelf, only spices and some imported products, like mangoes from India, are routinely treated with radiation.

The technology to irradiate food has been around for the better part of a century. The US government says it is safe, and many experts believe that it could reduce or even eliminate the food scares that periodically sweep through society.

"Meat irradiation is permitted but rarely used [in the US]"

It might even have killed the salmonella that reached grocery shelves in recent weeks after a factory in Georgia shipped tainted peanut butter and peanut paste, which wound up in products as diverse as cookies and dog treats. But irradiation has not been widely embraced in the United States.

In the European Union, irradiation is approved for bloc-wide use only for 'dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings', and such foods must be clearly labelled as having been so treated. But Haravgi-Nina Papadoulaki, a spokeswoman for the EU health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, said on 2 February that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) hopes to propose new guidelines by the end of 2009.

In December 2002, the European Parliament voted against expanding the list, citing tests on laboratory rats that suggested a possible cancer risk from a chemical called 2-ACB created when meat is irradiated.

But because of the common market, if a country approves irradiation for a particular food, the company making that product can still market it throughout the EU, which comprises 27 countries. Thus, for example, poultry can be irradiated in France or Belgium, where the process is allowed under national law, and sold in other countries, unless it is specifically banned.

Food manufacturers in the United States worry that the apparent benefits do not justify the cost or the potential consumer backlash. Some consumer groups complain that widespread irradiation of food after processing would simply cover up the food industry's hygiene problems. And some advocacy groups question the long-term safety of irradiation.

"In the European Union, irradiation is approved for bloc-wide use only for 'dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings'"

With all these doubts, one thing is certain - food poisoning continues. The cases that rise to public attention are only the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year in the United States. The vast majority are mild, but the agency estimates there are 5,000 deaths from food-borne disease and 325,000 hospitalizations each year.

This situation upsets advocates of irradiation. "Our society is running around with our head in the sand because we have ways to prevent illness and death that aren't being used," said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. "The rules are so tight on irradiation that you can't pull it out and use it when a new problem arises, and that's to the detriment of the American public."

Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, likened fears of irradiation to early phobias about the pasteurization of milk.

"It's unnecessary for people to be getting sick today with pathogens in spinach or pathogens in peanut butter," Dr Pillai told International Herald Tribune. "We have the technologies to prevent this kind of illness."

Food is irradiated by brief exposure to X-rays, gamma rays or an electron beam. The process is intended to reduce or eliminate harmful bacteria, insects and parasites, and it also can also extend the life of some products.

Advocates say it is particularly effective at killing pathogens in things like ground beef and lettuce, where they might be mixed into the middle of the product or hiding in a crevice that is hard to clean by traditional means.

Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, has long maintained that irradiation would be too expensive, impractical and sometimes ineffective because it might hide filthy conditions at food processing plants. Patty Lovera, the group's assistant director, said irradiation not only killed bacteria but could also destroy nutrients in food.

She pointed out that irradiated beef was offered at many grocery stores across the United States at the beginning of the decade but it did not last long. Customers were turned off by the higher price and by the extended shelf life of irradiated beef. "People that did the shopping, they would look at the date and be freaked out at how long it would be good for," Ms Lovera said.

Food industry officials, meanwhile, remain wary of irradiation because of the up-front costs and the potential public reaction to any technique with the word 'radiation' in it.

One potential test of the American public's acceptance could come with the marketing of irradiated spinach and lettuce. After the E. coli outbreak in 2006, the spinach industry lost 30 per cent of its business. The food agency approved irradiation for spinach and iceberg lettuce in August.

"There's no shortage of people who are looking at it," said Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for the Western Growers Association. "I don't know of anyone who is moving forward with it at this time."

"Irradiation typically does not work so well on products with high amounts of fat or oil ...because they can turn rancid during the process"

It remains an open question if peanut butter or products with peanut paste would be likely candidates for the technique, according to the International Herald Tribune article. Irradiation typically does not work so well on products with high amounts of fat or oil like peanut butter because they can turn rancid during the process. A spokesman for the American Peanut Council said irradiation was tested but found unacceptable because it degraded the taste of the nut.

Nonetheless, Dr Pillai said a low dose of radiation might be effective in killing traces of salmonella in peanut butter – or manufactured products with peanut paste – without ruining the taste. But he said it would not work as a substitute for basic hygiene and food safety measures.

Similarly, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association said food companies should make sure that plants were clean and follow good manufacturing and food safety practices. If problems remain afterward, then irradiation could be an option, provided it is permitted by the government.

Nine years ago, the association, then called Grocery Manufacturers of America, was among the sponsors of the application that was filed with the food agency seeking approval to irradiate ready-to-eat meat and poultry products and fruit and vegetable products.

Now that spinach and iceberg lettuce have been approved, it is focusing on persuading the FDA to permit irradiation of hot dogs and deli meats. An FDA spokesman declined to comment, saying the agency does not comment on open petitions, the International Herald Tribune report concludes.

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