Q&A: Irradiation

Richard Wiens, P.E. is the Product Manager for Sterilization at MDS Nordion, the world's leading provider of equipment and Cobalt-60 sources for gamma processing. Richard is responsible for identifying and analyzing market and technology trends, understanding customer requirements and providing strategic direction for his product line. In addition, he is involved in all aspects of promoting the use of gamma technology and bringing new products and services to market.

Richard has over 15 years experience in product management and manufacturing, in industries ranging from commercial aircraft production to software development.

How will FDA approval of irradiation for iceberg lettuce & spinach affect the leafy greens industry?
The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval of irradiation for iceberg lettuce and spinach demonstrates how this application continues to evolve and strengthen in the U.S. market. It is a safe and economical option for the food industry, and provides yet another tool to enhance food safety for consumers. As demonstrated over the last decade, food irradiation can also protect the industry from unnecessary product recalls which can cost millions and cripple a company.

What other types of food are currently being irradiated in the U.S.?
As U.S. food irradiation trends and issues continue, so will the adoption by the industry and its consumers. Currently, every year, irradiation is applied to approximately 18 million pounds of ground beef and poultry1 and 170 million pounds of spices2. Approximately two million pounds of labeled irradiated fruits and vegetables are sold annually3, with growing interest in the irradiation of other highly perishable products such as blueberries, raspberries and cherries. In addition, irradiated food is being sold in over 42,500 retail stores in 35 states4.

What types of irradiation technology are available?
There are two commercially available technologies for food irradiation: gamma and electron beam. Gamma radiation is generated from an isotope, while electron beam radiation is generated from accelerated electrons. Each is suited to particular applications within the spectrum of food that can be irradiated.

For over 40 years, MDS Nordion has offered gamma irradiation technology to the industry. Through state-of-the-art components and control systems, boxes or pallets of product are exposed to a pre-determined level of radiation, based on the desired effect. There are no toxic emissions and no impact on air or water quality. Gamma penetrates through the entire product (even its final packaging), providing an efficient and easy-to-use treatment. Using the treatment at the end of the production process ensures there is no downstream opportunity for cross-contamination.

Is there a strong future for irradiation in the food industry?
As consumer acceptance grows with an increasing number of irradiated foods available, and industry takes the steps necessary to broaden the application of the technology, irradiation will take its rightful place along side other processes, like pasteurization, as an effective way to ensure the safety of the food supply.

Is irradiation safe?
In 1963, the FDA found the irradiation of food to be safe. In addition, The World Health Organization, and many other national and international bodies, have endorsed food irradiation as safe. Globally, more than 40 countries have adopted the use of food irradiation5 for some 50 food products to focus on safety of their food supply and for safety of export.

How will consumers know their food has been irradiated?
Current regulations require that irradiated food bear the Radura symbol, either at the individual unit level or at point of sale. Food that has been irradiated at appropriate dose levels is indistinguishable from unirradiated food in terms of color, texture or taste. Foods that contain small amounts of irradiated ingredients (such as spices) do not need to be labeled.

The FDA has published a proposed rule that would remove some of the requirements for labeling irradiated food. A decision on this has yet to be made.

1 - Where's the Irradiated Beef? International Irradiation Association (iiA) Newsletter (October 2007)
2 - Food Irradiation Processing Alliance – Food Irradiation Questions and Answers
3 - Food Tutorial -The development of food irradiation to-date in Asia Pacific, the Americas, Europe and Africa (May 2008)
4 - Food Irradiation Processing Alliance – Food Irradiation Questions and Answers
5 - Food Irradiation Processing Alliance – Food Irradiation Questions and Answers