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FOOD TODAY 11/2002

Food Irradiation

Food TodayDespite being approved by international experts such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), food irradiation has been slow to gain acceptance in Europe. The problem seems to lie in poor communication of just what the technology involves and the benefits it can offer in improving the safety of the food supply

The irradiation process

Food irradiation involves exposing food to energy from sources such as gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams. During food irradiation, the food is not heated, as in the case of microwaving and none of the radiation is retained by the food. Irradiation does not make foods radioactive.

Food safety

The main benefit of food irradiation is that it kills harmful bacteria and other microorganisms that may cause food poisoning. Irradiation also has other effects such as delaying ripening and sprouting in foods thereby helping to extend shelf life. In other foods, such as cocoa, coffee, herbs and spices, food irradiation offers a safe and residue-free alternative to chemical fumigation. In the case of fragile foods such as fresh seafoods and soft fruits, irradiation can be used to eliminate hazardous microbes and delay spoilage without causing the food texture to deteriorate as it would if heat treatment were to be used.

Studies have shown that there is no significant loss of any nutrients after food has been irradiated. A small amount of some vitamins are lost, similar to the amounts lost during other food processing methods such as canning and drying.

Regulations

The Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission and many other regulatory authorities have established principles for the irradiation of foods together with the essential control procedures. Worldwide, over 41 countries have approved food irradiation for more than 60 food products.

In Europe, EU Directive 1999/2/EC provides for the laws concerning foods and food ingredients treated with ionising radiation. To date, only one food category - dried herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings - has been included on the list of foods that may be irradiated although other food categories have been nominated. The Directive specifies provisions including the source of ionising radiation, controls on the level of radiation permitted and food labelling requirements. Conditions are also specified for the importation of irradiated foods.

In Europe, food irradiation is not widely used. Only a few licences have been granted for the irradiation of spices. In other parts of the world, food irradiation has been used on poultry and poultry products to destroy salmonellae, campylobacters and other food poisoning bacteria. In the USA, food irradiation has been widely used on red meat, especially ground meats, to help reduce contamination with E. coli 0157:H7, a bacterium responsible for many cases of food poisoning, serious kidney damage, and occasionally death worldwide. Irradiation can also be used on dried herbs and spices, some seafood, fruits and vegetables, cereals and ready-to-eat meals. All foods that have been irradiated must be clearly marked as such.

Misconceptions remain

Food irradiation is one of the most carefully and extensively studied methods of food processing, yet its use remains controversial in many parts of Europe. Poor communication about the technology and its benefits has led to confusion and misunderstanding and has limited the adoption of irradiation throughout Europe.

The technology offers a safe and versatile way of helping to ensure safe high quality foods and reduce post-harvest losses. Clear labelling of irradiated foods offers consumers the option of not purchasing irradiated foods if they so wish. Misconceptions about irradiation, especially that it makes food radioactive, need to be corrected by sound, science-based information so that consumers can make informed choices.

References

  • World Health Organization (1994) Safety and nutritional adequacy of irradiated food. WHO, Geneva.
  • World Health Organization (1999) High-Dose Irradiation: Wholesomeness of food irradiated with doses above 10kGy. Technical Report Series No. 890, WHO, Geneva.
  • Institute of Food Science and Technology, Irradiated Foods, Information Statement,1999.
  • European Commission : http://ec.europa.eu/food/food/biosafety/irradiation/index_en.htm
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