An evaluation of food irradiation rules in Europe has found legislation is unlikely to have much impact on use because of a decline driven by industry and consumer fears, despite scientific evidence of its safety.

European Union directives on the topic came into force in 1999 and have not been amended much since. A roadmap was produced in 2017 followed by a study commissioned by DG Sante and public comments in 2020, which received 72 responses, mainly from EU citizens.

The evaluation found the directives had been inefficient at ensuring a level playing field between EU and non-EU countries and, because of a labeling requirement, had affected businesses’ ability to use irradiation.

Irradiation is a food decontamination technique and a 2011 European Food Safety Authority opinion found it is effective in ensuring the microbiological safety of foods. Some consumer associations and the European Parliament previously raised concerns that it may be misused by businesses to mask poor hygiene in production processes.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved a variety of foods for irradiation including beef and pork; crustaceans such as lobster, shrimp, and crab; fresh fruits and vegetables; lettuce and spinach; poultry; shell eggs and spices and seasonings.

Current situation in Europe
The EU irradiated more than 9,200 tons of food in 2010 but below 4,000 tons in 2019. The main reason for this decline seems to be industry concern that consumers would refuse to buy food labelled as irradiated, although this has not been demonstrated. In 2018 and 2019, more than 80 percent of food irradiated in the EU was treated at one facility in Belgium.

Only dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings have EU-wide authorization but different products have national approvals. The words “irradiated” or “treated with ionising radiation” must appear on the packaging. A move to approve other products was launched in 2000 but was opposed by a number of food businesses and consumer organizations, and was stopped by the European Parliament in 2002.

The latest data shows 24 approved irradiation facilities in 14 EU countries. The top products irradiated are frog legs, poultry, and dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetables seasonings. Ten sites are approved in non-EU countries. Three each in South Africa and India, two in Thailand and one each in Switzerland and Turkey.

Between 1999 and 2019, there were 358 RASFF notifications related to irradiation. The most frequent countries of origin for products subject to notifications were China, the United States, Russia and Vietnam – with none of them having EU approved irradiation facilities. In 2020, six alerts were registered: two from China, and one each from the United States, India, Vietnam and Belgium.

Member states carry out official checks but the intensity differs greatly with more than half done by Germany. Almost all non-compliances relate to imported foodstuffs, suggesting potential gaps in the enforcement of irradiation legislation at the border.

Future direction unclear
Findings of the work don’t point to any option for the future of European food irradiation legislation, among the four identified: status quo, adoption of an EU list of foods authorized for irradiation, and amendment or repealing the directives.

As long as the EU food industry and consumers are reluctant about irradiated foods, legislation will have a negligible impact on use of the technology, said the report.

Because of the lack of data on food irradiation and its alternatives, the evaluation could not conclude to what extent the rules had contributed to better food hygiene and reduced foodborne outbreaks.

Regulations did not achieve harmonization of legislation on irradiation across the EU with national agencies able to apply authorizations and bans on other irradiated foodstuffs than herbs and spices. Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Italy, Netherlands and Poland have a national list of authorizations on the treatment of foodstuffs with ionizing radiation.

The EU report said the reluctance of industry to use food irradiation can have serious consequences as shown by the ethylene oxide (ETO) incident.

“In September 2020, residues of ETO, a substance banned in the EU and dangerous to human health, were detected in sesame seeds from India. The seeds had been treated with this hazardous substance to eliminate microbiological contamination, while food irradiation could have been used for the same purpose,” according to the report.

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