What's Next? The Case For (and Against) Irradiation Technology

It can prevent food-borne illness and death; and, perhaps, radically alter the food processing industry. But a jittery public, some bad press and nagging questions create a few bumps for the business of irradiation. Amy C. Cosper The U. S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta estimates that each year 5,200 people die from food-related illnesses.

It can prevent food-borne illness and death; and, perhaps, radically alter the food processing industry. But a jittery public, some bad press and nagging questions create a few bumps for the business of irradiation.
Amy C. Cosper
The U. S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta estimates that each year 5,200 people die from food-related illnesses. Another 323,000 people are hospitalized. And a staggering 76 million others become ill from bacteria-contaminated food.

The economic toll of food borne illness is excruciatingly high. According to its calculations, the CDC says food-borne illnesses cost $6.7 billion annually in lost work and hospitalizations. It's a hefty price tag and, according to some, an unnecessary expense in terms of economic and human toll.

In an effort to alleviate the human and economic impact of food-borne pathogens, organizations such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization and the American Dietetic Association endorse a process called irradiation for use in food processing.

Irradiation exposes food to different types of energy (see sidebar for detail on the three different types of irradiation techniques). It is not a new science. It has been around for some 30 years and is commonly used to sanitize bandages, contact lenses and other medical products. In 2000, irradiation was approved for use in food processing.

Dr. Andy Vestal, associate director of outreach and extension, Institute of Food Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, says one type of irradiation, called electron beam processing, can destroy up 99.999 percent of pathogens in poultry and beef.

"In the case of electron beam processing, electricity accelerates to the speed of light and has the ability to penetrate a beef or poultry product up to 2 inches. Acceleration is important when electrons collide with the DNA of microorganisms," says Vestal.

Because of its effectiveness, electron beam processing, also called e-beam, has benefits for both consumers and food processing companies, according to Vestal.

"It's good for the food processing industry because it drives the industry to a higher quality and allows companies to offer the freshest and safest product. It also allows for a longer shelf life," adds Vestal.

And, of course, it protects consumers from salmonella, ecoli and listeria.

Dr. Jeffery Barach, vice president, special projects for the Washington-based National Food Processors Association, agrees with Vestal.

"Irradiation should be considered an intervention technology. It provides extra insurance for food processing companies and the public at the end of the food chain," Barach says.

Additionally, when people get sick, lawyers come knocking. Vestal says this is something to consider when deciding to add irradiation as a kill step. The ever-present risk of litigation against food processing companies should be taken into account.

"When someone gets ill from a food borne illness, attorneys will ask a company if it uses irradiation and if not, they'll want to know why. Attorneys will say, 'Can I as an attorney defend you if you haven't done your due diligence.'"

Still, despite the benefits to both consumer and food processing companies, less than 1 percent of beef and poultry processing companies use any type of irradiation.

"There are only 8,000 grocery stores and restaurants in the United States that use irradiation," notes Vestal. "The perception among consumers and industry is what limits the adoption rate. And after that, the economics are what slow the uptake."

Irradiation is not free. Estimates range from two cents per pound to 12 cents per pound, but it is largely dependant upon the volume. Packaging, labeling and transportation figure into that equation. Specific labeling is a requirement. All irradiated foods in the United States must carry a logo, called the Radura label, which figures into the cost as well.

To give some scale to the cost per pound of irradiating beef or poultry, Vestal cites Dairy Queen, a restaurant chain that currently uses irradiation on its beef products.

"Dairy Queen uses irradiation for its ground beef in 150 of its restaurants. [Dairy Queen] officials have said that it costs about seven cents per pound to irradiate," Vestal says.

Economics aside, both Barach and Vestal think the single biggest reason irradiation has failed to gain acceptance is due to a widespread perception problem and a stinker of a brand name. With a name like irradiation, it's no wonder a certain suspicion lurks in the general public.

"Consumers associate irradiation with nuclear energy," says Vestal. "There are groups out there that play off this fear and perpetrate this belief."

Barach agrees and adds "Consumers lack a real understanding of the benefit [of irradiation] so there is a hesitancy to purchase irradiated product."

While the U.S. Government does play a role in educating the public about irradiation and has produced several booklets and brochures on the topic, the booklets don't get wide distribution (it's expensive). So the educational information may exist, but it doesn't get disseminated, according to Barach.

And then there's the media, always seeking the sensational vs. the practical. Vestal believes, in this case, the media has failed to focus on the positive effects irradiation delivers. But the over-riding problem is that the media ignores irradiation altogether.

That is unless there's a big story. And in 2001, irradiation technology did grab some headlines.

During the anthrax attacks on the U.S. Postal system in 2001, the government called on irradiation experts to help sanitize the mail. Irradiation is still in use today by postal facilities.

"We had hoped the public would be better educated after the anthrax scare. Then people would realize irradiation has a positive effect. This didn't happen," says Barach.

Adding to the litany of widely held misperceptions is the notion that irradiated beef and poultry lose nutritional value. On the Public Citizen website (www.citizen.org), the loss of nutritional value is noted in the organization's "Top 10 Problems with Irradiated Food" section.

"These claims are unsubstantiated by science. What we have learned is that many micronutrients are actually enhanced in the electron irradiation process," explains Vestal.

Some nutrients, such as B6, are diminished when exposed to irradiation, but the amount is "negligible," says Vestal.

In addition to accusing irradiation techniques of destroying vitamins and nutrients, Public Citizen, which is a nonprofit public interest organization, claims food irradiation should be viewed as nothing more than a cover up to mask filthy conditions at slaughterhouses.

Vestal and Barach strongly disagree with this claim. In fact, Vestal equates the irradiation hysteria to the hysteria surrounding pasteurization. Prior to its broad acceptance, many advocacy groups claimed the pasteurization process damaged the nutritional value of milk.

"Irradiation should not replace good management practices. It should not replace safeguards already in place. Instead, it should be an added phase to improve food quality - much like pasteurization," cautions Vestal.

He closes by urging those in the food processing industry "to investigate, learn the opportunities around the technology. It is not a panacea, but it is a valuable tool."

More in Home