Why is irradiation technology not catching on? Misconception, fear about safety or poor awareness?
Whoever has not heard of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan? People in these two unfortunate towns were the "pioneering" victims of the horrendous atom bomb attack by the Americans during World War II and even to day, after seven decades of that horrible incidence, the wounds have not healed completely. What is the connection between an atom bomb and food? Of course there is a connection in that people are reminded of the deadly effect of radiation when the modern irradiation technology was developed for food preservation and human safety. What a contradiction! The bomb is a destroyer par excellence while irradiation technology is a savior of man kind. It is this paradox that is coming in the way of popularising a technology based on gamma radiation that can kill a hoist of pathogens which are the scourge of the millions of consumers, victims of food poisoning, maiming and killing them. Why is that the world inhabited by 7 billion plus population, in spite of the unassailable safety data generated over decades of exhaustive research is not able to convince itself that irradiation is a process with zero danger and absolute safety? No one knows the reason though one can guess that governments world over have not done enough to educate their citizens at an early stage of their lives about what irradiation technology is all about and its tremendous potential to eradicate food borne diseases.
Consuming safe food is not an issue that has divergence of opinion because food borned diseases pose a major risk to the well being and quality of life. Only those who were exposed to food-borne illness know how unpleasant the experience can be and how it can be deadly if not properly and timely treated. Food scientists and technologists have been working incessantly for the last two centuries to evolve technologies that can extend the life of perishable foods without sacrificing the safety or quality. Thus thermal processing, dehydration, salt and sugar preservation, high pressure processing, refrigeration, freezing, controlled atmosphere storage and transportation etc are front line technologies in use to day and industry is indebted to them for making available foods across the globe irrespective of the length of the food chain. Though using these technologies food can be made safe, often the manufacturing facilities and the personnel involved in managing them can falter resulting in catastrophe in the form of food poisoning. Thus however beautiful or fool proof the technology is, ultimate safety still depends on uncompromising hygiene and sanitation in the manufacturing environment. Food irradiation may be a very good technology but it can be good only as long as no compromise is made on the base quality of the food and soundness of the processing facilities.
What is irradiation? It is a simple process of exposing food materials which are perishable due to vectors like microorganisms and insects, to ionizing radiation capable of generating energy that can be transmitted without direct contact with the material exposed. Such radiation is capable of freeing electrons from their atomic bonds in the targeted food. Such an exposure reduces risk of food borne illnesses, prevents spread of invasive insects and pests, delays or eliminates sprouting in crops like potato and delays the physiological phenomenon involved in ripening in fruits. A characteristic feature of irradiation is that the foods so processed do not become radioactive as being feared by many ill informed consumers. Though radio active substances are commonly used to emit radiation, electrons can also be generated by electricity. Medical industry uses gamma radiation very widely to day for sterilizing many inputs used in hospitals. Since International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has unequivocally cleared food irradiation as a safe and effective tool for disinfection and disinfestation, more than 60 countries have approved this technology for use by different sectors of food industry. It is estimated that about half a million tons of foods are irradiated across the world annually. In fact many countries are insisting that products like spices and herbs must be irradiated if to be imported into their countries.
While countries like Brazil permit use of unlimited doses of gamma radiation in foods some restrictions are in place in countries like Austria, Germany and others. Generally gamma radiation application is categorised into low dose, medium dose and high dose depending on the intensity of the energy deployed, as measured on kiloGray scale (kGy). Low dosage means radiation should not be more than 1 kGy, medium denotes 1-10 kGy and high dosage uses radiation above 10 kGy. Low dose is effective against insects, sprouting and ripening. Medium dose is needed for delaying meat spoilage, preserve spices, seasonings and herbs. High dosage is deployed for sterilization of packed meat, increasing juice yield from fruits and improving the rehydration characteristics of dehydrated foods. To ensure adequate consumer awareness and proper transparency, Codex Alimentarius Commission insists on compulsory labeling of irradiated foods and also recommends inclusion of the "Radura" logo on the label. Both FAO and IAEA strongly favor wide scale use of irradiation for improving the food safety environment in member countries. There are global standards created by Codex of FAO and WHO agreed upon by member countries under WTO protocols and each country can adapt these standards for application within their countries.
One of the impediments in wide scale use of irradiation technology is the enormous capital investment required for establishing the required facility which is beyond the financial capability of normal entrepreneurs. It is estimated that an economically viable treatment facility can cost upward of $ 5 million to establish and industry expects government involvement in establishing common irradiation facilities in areas where food processing and exports are concentrated. Also of constraint is the tight control on fissionable materials which are essential part of an irradiation plant and which have security connotations in terms of misuse by terrorists and criminals if they get access to such dangerous materials. Cobalt-60 radioisotope is the preferred radiation source used in irradiators though Caesium-137 can also be used if available. The latter isotope is a by-product of atomic power reactors which are working in many countries. But its availability is rather restricted because of logistical factors. Though Caesium-137 is cheaper compared to Cobalt-60, it has an inherent risk in that it is soluble in water raising the risk of radiation contamination of cooling water due to possible leak and consequent health hazards.
Another issue that is hindering universal application of irradiation technology is the hesitation on the part of the industry to adopt the same because of the mandatory requirement of labeling irradiated foods that will distinguish it from products made with other technologies. There can be some apprehension that when such a declaration is made on the label, it raises doubts in the minds of the consumer regarding the quality and safety of these foods vis a vis that of other products in the market. It is similar to the labeling war that is going on Genetically modified foods where industry opposes such distinctive and compulsory declaration precisely on same grounds. Really speaking there is no need for declaring the foods treated by irradiation process as distinct as the food material is not changed in any way and there is no residual radiation left behind after the treatment. Unfortunately the consensus politics at the international level seeking wide acceptance among the countries and wide scale application in most countries led to the provision of mandatory labeling of irradiated foods. How this logjam can be broken remains to be seen. One way for solving this issue amicably could be to make industry declare compulsorily on all packed foods the technology used to manufacture all the products marketed. For example canned products can carry a declaration that it is thermally processed or pH modification process for acid preserved products or chemically preserved for those where preservative chemicals have been used. Of course it is uncertain whether industry is amenable to such a proposal.
New technologies such as irradiation that can make food safer have historically been a tough sell as far as the public is concerned and they face severe backlash at least in the beginning due apprehension about the health implications among the public. Many countries were on the threshold of clearing irradiation technology during early 2000 but retracted because of fear about public criticism. Is it not a tragedy that in spite of irrevocable and irrefutable evidence in favour of irradiation process extraneous considerations are holding it to ransom coming in the way of universal adoption? Can any one refute the fact that treating food products with ionizing radiation can reduce the presence of mould, E coli, salmonella, campylobacter and parasites without reducing nutrition or food quality?. International authorities such as the United Nations and the World Health Organization have unreservedly endorsed it. Take the example of a developed country like Canada where irradiation technology was approved for use since 2002 on potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, whole and ground spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations. Why is it that industry is currently using it only on spices, that too sparingly? .
Surveys in many countries suggests that public sentiments range from comfortably oblivious to vaguely supportive of this technology. Interestingly vast majority of consumers who respond to such surveys , more than 70% express their ignorance of existence of irradiation technology. An encouraging trend is that generally more consumers are positive about their views on the technology compared to those who are negative in their perception. Another revelation that comes out of consumer surveys is that more than 80% consumers want compulsory labeling of irradiated foods though they are not clear why that should be so. Looking from another angle, if milk labels contain words like pasteurized, UHT treated etc why not irradiated beef and other food stuffs processed using gamma radiation also declare the technology used. Some critics are concerned that if irradiation technology is used widely, meat industry may lower their guard vis-a-vis maintenance of high standards of hygiene and sanitation. Whether this is really a problem may emerge only when irradiation becomes the standard process of vector destruction in industries like meat processing and other easily perishable and vulnerable food stuffs. If world is facing to day a serious health crisis because of the wide spread contamination of foods due to infection with more than two dozens pathogenic microorganisms, a choice needs to be made to day whether we want irradiation technology to be made compulsory especially for meat products. The fact that more than 50 million people get sick every year, almost 2 lakh are hospitalized and more than 3000 people die because of food poisoning from pathogens is a strong enough reason for the world to move in the direction mentioned above.