Except for those within food companies that are having their products routinely irradiated, we haven’t heard much about food irradiation over the last decade. However, recently there seems to be a resurgence of press articles and even government approvals related to irradiating food. What’s going on?
In the 1980s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made a significant step by approving the irradiation of spices (more accurately, dehydrated aromatic vegetable substances) to a maximum dose limit of 30 kGy and fresh food products to a maximum dose limit of 1 kGy. These two applications are very different from one another and require different equipment. Furthermore, one is for perishable product and the other is for non-perishable product, requiring different product handling and logistics.
At the time of these approvals, a mature irradiation industry was already in place. But that industry was centered on the processing of non-perishable products above 10 kGy, such as medical devices. Therefore, it was relatively easy for the spice industry to take advantage of the existing irradiation infrastructure. Today, a majority of spices are irradiated on a regular basis. However, most people don’t think of spices when they think of food. They think of perishable foods such as meat and vegetables.
Perishable foods, by definition, have significant logistical challenges. Irradiating perishable food requires irradiators that are suited to delivering a dose that is only a fraction of that for non-perishable foods. Only just recently have irradiators and service irradiation facilities specifically designed for perishable products become available to the food industry.
An irradiator specifically designed for perishable foods was recently installed inside an existing cold storage food warehouse in Gulfport, Miss. It is processing a significant percentage of fresh, live, Gulf oysters as a Post-Harvest Process (PHP) to minimize the public health threat from Vibrio Parahaemolyticus and Vibrio Vulnificus. Located in the geographic center of the Gulf, inside a cold storage facility, it became easy for oyster harvesters to take advantage of the irradiation process without significant modifications in their logistics. The costs are minimal when compared to the benefit of producing a safe live oyster even in off-season months.
An impact is also being made on the import of previously quarantined fruits. The irradiator in Gulfport is just starting to irradiate imported fruit to ensure that they do not contain viable insect pests that could threaten U.S. domestic crops. The initial volumes being processed are small and not yet significant from an industry-wide perspective. However, since the specific fruits have no other approved method to allow entry, it represents 100% of their niche of the food industry. Another facility, using an irradiator identical to that in Gulfport, has recently opened in Hawaii to export fruits and vegetables, through quarantine, to the mainland. Soon both facilities, and perhaps more, will allow the export of U.S. agricultural products to countries that have similar quarantine restrictions.
The use of both of these facilities is growing at a rapid pace. This is paralleled by other segments of the food industry re-evaluating the use of irradiation for their products. As new irradiators are commissioned for specific food processes, they will be available for other segments of the food industry to explore the potential of irradiating products. This, in turn, will lead to even more facilities. Similarly, as the capabilities to irradiate certain foods become more prevalent, the regulators have more stimulus to allow the irradiation of new food products. In April, the FDA finally approved the irradiation of crustaceans that had been petitioned back in 2001.
You cannot irradiate a commercial product without the equipment and infrastructure in place. It was already in place for spices in the 1980s. It is now just starting to be available for fresh foods. It is not that food irradiation is back. It has always been here, but for limited and relatively small volume products. There is a growing capability to irradiate perishable food, which is re-kindling an interest in food irradiation.
Vice President, GRAY*STAR, Inc.