When it comes to ensuring that food enters the market carrying as few pathogens and insects as possible, the large majority of health, governmental and scholarly authorities seem to agree — food irradiation is an effective final safety measure.
In the face of the country’s worst outbreak of foodborne illness in more than 10 years, and after the devastating European E. coli epidemic this spring, interest in irradiation — a heat-free procedure that kills microorganisms in food through gamma, x-ray or electronic energy — continues to rise.
But while the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been approving new types of irradiated food for sale since the 1960s, few food processors have taken the leap to irradiating their products, leaving consumers little opportunity to get familiar with the treatment. At the same time, producers see irradiation as a big risk when consumer acceptance appears so shaky.
As a result, irradiation has fallen into a technological limbo, largely supported by the scientific community while going almost completely ignored by its intended end users. Whether through its additional costs, the misperception of it producing off-tastes or the general association of the word “radiation” with nuclear reactors and glowing skin, irradiation remains a niche treatment, used extensively on spices but nearly absent from meat and produce sections.
Irradiation proponents see lack of education as the main obstacle in the way of greater public acceptance, saying that too few consumers understand the technology and the level of safety it adds to meat and fresh produce.
“I think that more consumers would choose irradiated foods if they fully understood the process and the results so that they were comfortable with it,” said Joseph Sebranek, Ph.D., agriculture and life sciences professor at Iowa State University. “Part of the problem is that even though there is a lot of publicity about the need to improve food safety, the vast majority of consumers believe our food to already be very safe, and I think that they — subconsciously perhaps — don’t see a need for another process for safety.”
As a safety measure, irradiation occurs at the end of the production chain, with packaged food or ready-to-ship produce treated with precise doses of radiation. The process does not use any heat, but produces an effect similar to cooking: Good doses kill at least 99.99 percent of microorganisms in the food without producing the “off-flavor” associated with imprecise doses.
Sebranek argued that irradiation could have prevented Europe’s deadly E. coli outbreak and other outbreaks linked to fresh produce, because the treatment eliminates pathogens from fruits and vegetables while keeping their textures and chemistry intact.
And unlike chemical washes, irradiation kills organisms within the product, not just on the outside.
But the use of irradiation as a last-line-of-defense bothers others, such as Carol Tucker-Foreman, director of the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute and coiner of the phrase, “Irradiated poop won’t make you sick, but it’s still poop.”
Tucker-Foreman said she and other irradiation opponents question the necessity of the technology when food makers should focus on improving sanitation standards at the beginning of the production chain. Many opponents use the “Band-aid” argument, suggesting irradiation offers the chance to zap away mistakes at the end of the chain instead of ensuring food starts safe and stays that way.
Those in the irradiation industry call that claim unfair.
Harlan Clemmons is the president of Sadex, a Sioux City, IA food irradiation facility and one of two companies in the United States to specialize in irradiating beef and other meat products. He said that his company requires all processors to manufacture food under a scientifically validated and verified Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Points (HACCP) plan and that foods not appearing to meet that criteria or failing to provide the proof in paperwork are not treated at their facility.
Sebranek, Tucker-Foreman and Clemmons all agree that no one will likely see more irradiated foods in marketplaces until customers start demanding them. The debate rests on whether or not they will, and whether or not the required label, the Radura will turn them away.
“I believe there’s 10 to 15 percent of the public who will never buy irradiated food and 10 to 15 percent of the public who will always buy it if available,” Clemmons said. “The rest don’t understand what irradiation is, and if provided the information, I believe the American consumer would accept it in most cases.”
Clemmons said that two-thirds of the foods Sadex irradiates are for pets, with beef and some produce rounding out the remaining third. He also cited a number of commonly used products that are sterilized with irradiation before human contact: Bandages, eye contact solution, cotton balls, diapers, all varieties of medical equipment.
“Be realistic: You wouldn’t think twice about using any of those products,” Clemmons said.
Currently, irradiated beef accounts for less than one-tenth of one percent of the beef market. Not only does poor public perception factor into the low availability, but the simple lack of infrastructure makes it a big logistical hurdle: For a processor to even have the option of selling irradiated beef, they need to send it either through Sadex in Iowa or the other facility in Florida, adding shipping costs onto the treatment’s price tag.
Tucker-Foreman said that irradiation has too many downsides to ever capture a large share of the market, and that the scientific community’s focus on irradiation is potentially taking valuable attention away from other improvements to the food system.
“The food industry has the option to use irradiation right now if they want to,” she said. “The fact is they’re not using it right now, and not just because they have to label it, but because it costs more and if you don’t do it with great precision, you get meat that doesn’t taste very good.”
After more than a decade in the irradiation business, Clemmons said he has seen a constant, gradual increase each year in the amount of irradiated beef Americans eat. Until it becomes more sought-out, however, he said he will not see it making dramatic leaps in availability.
“When I look at the big picture, we’re talking about prevention,” he said. “We want to reduce recalls. We have people getting sick, dying, getting debilitating diseases from foodborne pathogens that irradiation can help prevent. I don’t want to call it the silver bullet, but it is a bullet in the arsenal of available interventions.”