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Food Irradiation: Facts and Figures

In October 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a draft risk assessment on the levels of contaminants in spices. The report made headlines nationwide for including the finding that 12 percent of spices imported to the U.S. were contaminated with everything from insects and rodent excrement to human hair and staples.

Another major finding was that 6.6 percent of imported spices, which make up 80 percent of spices consumed in the U.S., were contaminated with Salmonella during a three-year study from 2007 to 2009. Other pathogens found during sampling included Clostridium perfringens, Shigella and Staphylococcus aureus.

Increasingly in recent years, more spices consumed in the U.S. are undergoing irradiation treatment to eliminate risks associated with microbial contamination. The process involves exposing food to bursts of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams, and may also be used to increase shelf life since it destroys spoilage-causing bacteria and molds.

FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization have all signed off on the safety of irradiated foods, although critics such as the Center for Food Safety say it may be abused as a tactic to cover up poor sanitation practices and can create trace amounts of cancer-causing compounds.

Irradiation makes its way to grocery shelves

Irradiation as a food safety intervention has taken a foothold among a few grocery commodities, most notably spices and imported fruits. Certain marketplaces in the U.S. have also begun offering irradiated ground beef and shellfish products.

About one-third of commercial spices in the U.S. are irradiated today, which equates to around 175 million pounds of spices a year, according to Ronald Eustice, author of the monthly newsletter Food Irradiation Update and former executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.

Some imported fruits cannot enter the U.S. without undergoing irradiation treatment to kill any potential insects from coming in as stowaways. That means papayas from Mexico, mangoes from India and dragonfruit from Vietnam may have gone under the rays before making it to the produce section of grocery markets. (Not all imported fruits are irradiated, however — only a small percentage, according to an FDA spokesman.)

At least one beef company, Omaha Steaks, uses irradiation as a selling point. The company irradiates all of its ground beef to prevent risk of pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella transmission.

Northeast regional grocery chain Wegmans Food Markets has offered irradiated ground beef as an option to customers since USDA approved the process for meats in 2000. Schwan’s Food Service also irradiates every pound of ground beef found in its food products.

More food companies may very well turn to irradiation in the future as a way to avoid costly recalls and outbreaks, Eustice said.

“Every week, there’s another recall of some sort. Some aren’t big, but they’re there,” he said. “The Foster Farms chicken [Salmonella outbreak] could have been prevented. It’s the best protection against recalls and litigation.”

A handful of companies are also now irradiating molluscan shellfish, most notably oysters. Irradiated oysters, however, introduce some of their own labeling problems.

Concerns with irradiation

FDA requires the labels of irradiated foods to include the Radura, the international symbol for irradiation. But shoppers may not see the Radura on some irradiated products, such as oysters or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients, said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.

Processed foods containing irradiated spices, for example, do not contain a Radura on the box. Restaurant patrons may also receive irradiated foods without knowing it.

Some consumers wish to avoid irradiated foods for a number of reasons, Hanson said, including concerns that the irradiation treatment is used to mask quality problems with the food.

“Why should we have people arguing that they need to irradiate ground beef because it’s likely to have E. coli in it?” Hanson said. “The first thing that you need to do is process meat in a way where you don’t have E. coli.”

Hanson added that consumers paying for fresh produce may feel misled if their fruit was irradiated to last longer before spoiling.

Center for Food Safety has also expressed concerns about potential carcinogens created in the irradiation process, such as benzene and toluene.

Eustice said that those claims have “no validity whatsoever,” likening the amount of benzene created from irradiation to the amount created when bread is turned to toast or coffee is roasted.

“If you were concerned about the chemicals they’re talking about, you’d quit drinking coffee completely,” Eustice said. “There’s no basis in fact.”

Hanson agreed that while an individual irradiated food item was not cause for concern, the cumulative effect of an irradiation-heavy diet may be.

“One thing is not going to cause tremendous problems, but if you start irradiating all the beef, all the chicken, all the seafood, the lettuce [...] you may have changes in the food that cause problems,” Hanson said.

Eustice reiterated that the safety of irradiation has long been proven. He added that he’d like to see the government become more proactive about encouraging irradiation of food.

A number of food irradiation facilities are sprouting up around the world, Eustice said, likely making irradiated food products more widely available in the future.

“We’d like to see more retailers like Wegman’s and Omaha Steaks,” Eustice said, referring to their irradiated beef offerings. “They’re tired of recalls.”

© Food Safety News
  • Carl Custer

    Irradiation destroys vitamins, creates Unknown
    Radiolytic Products (URPs), and kills off the vegetative biota thus, allowing
    botulinum to grow without competition . . . the same as cooking. Don’t
    get me started on “Them” and “The Amazing Colossal Man”. Or as Orson wells might say: “Boo!”

  • hu_sna

    The main purpose for irradiation in spices (domestic and international) should be to destroy the spore forming bacteria. For all other quality management issues that contribute to germination of spores, hurdle technology (managing the intrinsic and extrinsic parameters in food to increase shelf life and prevent spoilage) should be the choice of the food industry.

  • Oginikwe

    ““Why should we have people arguing that they need to irradiate ground
    beef because it’s likely to have E. coli in it?” Hanson said. “The first
    thing that you need to do is process meat in a way where you don’t have
    E. coli.”” Can I get an “AMEN”!!

    Amen to that Mr. Hanson.
    I prefer my food not only free of E. coli but also not irradiated.

  • GadgetConsumer

    And people wonder why cancer rates are increasing…

  • MAURICIO G RODRIGUEZ

    Back in the mid 80′s, the FDA and the USDA approved the irradiation of imported fruits from Chile, as a quarantine treatment. This was thought to be a viable option to the mandatory fumigation with MB, which at that time, was already believed to be affecting the ozone layer. In essence, fruit irradiation consisted of exposing the product to low doses of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams (up to 10kGy) – also known as ‘ionizing irradiation’ – through a linear accelerator. Lab experiments conducted at the UC Davis at that time showed limited amounts of radiolites as a byproduct on the treated fruit. Also, they showed that, for instance on grapes, a total destruction of the mold Botrytis and other microorganisms, after the treatment, leading to the preliminary conclusion that this treatment would increase their shelf-life. After a big hype over this technology and the opposition of various environmental groups, mostly in CA, the EPA itself declared the treatment illegal. Why? Because the treated products without the presence of certain microorganisms were considered to be ADULTERATED….Go figure, Now from the quarantine point of view, irradiation was totally inefficient as all it did under the dose permitted, was transforming (not killing) any possible insects, by sterilizing them. Needless is to say that the USDA inspector at the ports of entry would not have had the tools to tell whether or not a given bug was sterile of potentially reproductive.

  • Laura Secord

    I guess you should be told the suture in the OR as well as many implants are irradiated. Just sayin’

  • tetrahedron

    Irradiated food labelling in Australia and New Zealand is under threat. Please help by adding your name to a petition calling for labelling to be retained:

    http://www.chn.ge/1f5wMnf

    The petition will be running until late 2015.

  • Emoh Larc

    What about the X rays that are used to scan the consignments when the organic fruits undergo security screening at arrival at port? That’s irradiation right?