Wastage of food due to spoilage on account of physiological changes, chemical reactions, physical factors, microorganisms, pests and insects has been a concern of mankind ever since the dawn of modern civilization. The problem assumed more and more sinister dimension when it became clear that the fast growing population may face food shortage one day if availability falls short of requirement. Extent of food wastage has been variously estimated between 25 and 50%, mainly due to post harvest losses. In spite of the availability of a plethora of technologies developed during the last 5 decades and discovery of many chemicals that can counteract food spoilage, wastage is still considered significant. A strategy combining drastic reduction of losses with increased land productivity only can ensure adequate food security to future generation.
Food irradiation technology has been a controversial method of preserving food though 60 years of incessant research and thousands of publications arising out of the past studies have cleared every doubt regarding the safety of irradiated foods. If any technology can be put on a high pedestal for its "cleanliness" and dependability, none can beat the irradiation technology for that unique position. Yet it is sad to see that only a small volume of 500000 tons of food is irradiated in the entire world, the reason for such low performance being human "psychology". Ever since the horrible incidence of dropping atomic bombs in Hiroshima in 1945, man is horrified by the term radiation and this has put a mental block on accepting a food processing technology associated with radiation.
Thanks to Codex Alimentarius Commission of FAO/WHO (CAC), food irradiation has been cleared for use in any foods using any dose of radiation. Also known as electronic pasteurization or cold pasteurization, over 40 countries have adopted food irradiation to varying extent in different foods though Brazil and Pakistan are the only two countries adopting the CAC guidelines in toto. The irradiation technology is very versatile in that it can be used in low doses of 1 kilo Gray for sprout inhibition, delayed ripening and for increased juice yield from fruits while higher doses beyond 1 kGy are useful in extending life of meat products, disinfection of aromatic herbs and spices and sterilization of hospital diets for recuperating patients. To day a wide range of food products that include apples, bananas, mangoes, onions, potatoes, strawberries, an array of spices and seasonings, fish, poultry, frog legs, fresh and frozen meat products, food grains, etc undergo irradiation, especially for making them fit for export involving extended periods of ocean transport. The ionizing radiation causes irreparable damage to the DNA strands in contaminating organisms making them incapable of proliferation.
North America and Europe account for most of irradiated food business as the population there are more sensitive and vulnerable to food related safety mishaps. In non-food sector radiation sterilization is widely practiced and this includes medical hardware, plastics, holes for gas pipe lines, hoses for floor heating, shrink foils for food packaging, automobile parts, wires and cables, tires, gemstones etc. Food industry will have no choice but to use irradiation technology in the coming years because of its superior performance compared to other technologies. Recent indications bring out the fact that many consumers are willing to accept irradiation technology if adequate safety assurances are forthcoming from the industry and already many food ingredients treated with irradiation are in use with full knowledge of consumers. The possibility of using more explicit terminologies like electronic pasteurization or cold pasteurization on the label as is being contemplated in some countries may help the cause of this technology. Though initial investment may be some what high for irradiation plants, being in the range of $ 1-5 million, the low processing cost between 3-20 cents per kg of treated foods makes the process one of the cheapest possible to day.