Food irradiation is the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation in order to destroy microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, or insects that might be present in the food. Further applications include sprout inhibition, delay of ripening, increase of juice yield, and improvement of re-hydration. Irradiation is a more general term of deliberate exposure of materials to radiation to achieve a technical goal (in this context 'ionizing radiation' is implied). As such it is also used on non-food items, such as medical hardware, plastics, tubes for gas-pipelines, hoses for floor-heating, shrink-foils for food packaging, automobile parts, wires and cables (isolation), tires, and even gemstones. Compared to the amount of food irradiated, the volume of those every-day applications is huge but not noticed by the consumer.
The genuine effect of processing food by ionizing radiation relates to damages to the DNA, the basic genetic information for life. Microorganisms can no longer proliferate and continue their malignant or pathogen activities. Spoilage-causing micro-organisms cannot continue their activities. Insects do not survive or become incapable of proliferation. Plants cannot continue the natural ripening or aging process.
The speciality of processing food by ionizing radiation is that the energy density per atomic transition is very high; it can cleave molecules and induce ionization (hence the name), which is not achieved by mere heating. This is the reason for both new effects and new concerns. The treatment of solid food by ionizing radiation can provide an effect similar to heat pasteurization of liquids, such as milk. However, the use of the term "cold pasteurization" to describe irradiated foods is controversial, since pasteurization and irradiation are fundamentally different processes.
Food irradiation is currently permitted by over 40 countries and volumes are estimated to exceed 500,000 metric tons annually world wide.
Furthermore, insect pests can be sterilized (be made incapable of proliferation) using irradiation at relatively low doses. In consequence, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has approved the use of low-level irradiation as an alternative treatment to pesticides for fruits and vegetables that are considered hosts to a number of insect pests, including fruit flies and seed weevils; US FDA has cleared among a number of other applications the treatment of hamburger patties to eliminate the residual risk of a contamination by a virulent E. coli. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has passed a motion to commit member states to implement irradiation technology for their national phytosanitary programs; the General assembly of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has urged to make wider use of the irradiation technology. And the USDA has made a number of bi-lateral agreements with developing countries to facilitate the imports of exotic fruits and to simplify the quarantine procedures.
Currently, the European Union has regulated processing of food by ionizing radiation in specific directives since 1999; the situation is easily explored and the several documents and reports are accessible. The 'implementing' directive contains a 'positive list' only permitting irradiation of dried aromatic herbs, spices, and vegetable seasonings. However, any Member State is permitted to maintain previously granted clearances or to add new clearance as granted in other Member States, in the case the EC's Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) has given a positive vote for the respective application. Presently, six Member States (Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, United Kingdom) have adopted such provisions.
Because of the 'Single Market' of the EC, any food--even if irradiated--must be allowed to be marketed in any other Member State even if a general ban of food irradiation prevails, under the condition that the food has been irradiated legally in the state of origin. Furthermore, imports into the EC are possible from third countries if the irradiation facility had been inspected and licensed by the EC and the treatment is legal within the EC or some Member state.
The Scientific Committee on Food (SCF) of the EC has given a positive vote on eight categories of food to be irradiated. However, in a compromise between the European Parliament and the European Commission, only dried aromatic herbs, spices, and vegetable seasonings can be found in the positive list. The European Commission was due to provide a final draft for the positive list by the end of 2000; however, this failed because of a veto from Germany and a few other Member States. In 1992 and in 1998 the SCF voted positive on a number of irradiation applications which had been allowed in some Member States before the EC Directives came into force, in order to enable those Member States to maintain the national authorizations. In 2003 (at the occasion when Codex Alimentarius was about to remove any upper dose limit for food irradiation) the SCF adopted a 'revised opinion' which in fact is just a re-confirmation and endorsement of the 1986-opinion. The cancellation of the upper dose limit is denied, and before the actual list of individual items or food classes (as in the opinions expressed in 1986, 1992 and 1998) is expanded, new individual studies into the toxicology of each of such food and for each of the proposed dose ranges is requested. After 2003 the SCF has been replaced by the new European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which not yet has voted on processing food by ionizing radiation.
Other countries including New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, India, and Mexico have permitted the irradiation of fresh fruits for fruit fly quarantine purposes amongst others. Other countries as Pakistan and Brazil have adopted the Codex Alimentarius Standard on Irradiated Food without any reservation or restriction, ie. any food to any dose.
It is important to note that these doses are above those currently permitted for these food items by the FDA and other regulators around the world. The Codex Alimentarius Standard on Irradiated Food does not specify any upper dose limit. NASA is authorized to sterilize frozen meat for astronauts at doses of 44 kGy as a notable exception.
Food irradiation using Cobalt-60 is the preferred method by most processors, because the deeper penetration enables administering treatment to entire industrial pallets or totes, reducing the need for material handling. A pallet or tote is typically exposed for several minutes to hours depending on dose. Radioactive material must be monitored and carefully stored to shield workers and the environment from its gamma rays. During operation this is achieved by substantial concrete shields. With most designs the radioisotope can be lowered into a water-filled source storage pool to allow maintenance personnel to enter the radiation shield. In this mode the water in the pool absorbs the radiation. Other uncommonly used designs feature dry storage by providing movable shields that reduce radiation levels in areas of the irradiation chamber.
One variant of gamma irradiators keeps the Cobalt-60 under water at all times and lowers the product to be irradiated under water in hermetic bells. No further shielding is required for such designs.
Nominal X-ray energy is usually limited to 5 MeV; however, USA has provisions for up to 7.5 MeV which increases the conversion efficiency. An other development is the availability of electron accelerators with extremely high power output, up to 1,000 kW beam. At a conversion efficiency of up to 12%, the X-ray power may reach (including filtering and other losses) 100 kW; This power would be equivalent to a gamma facility with Co-60 of about 6.5 MCi.
The actual cost of food irradiation is influenced by dose requirements, the food's tolerance of radiation, handling conditions (i.e., packaging and stacking requirements), construction costs, financing arrangements, and other variables particular to the situation. Irradiation is a capital-intensive technology requiring a substantial initial investment, ranging from $1 million to $5 million. In the case of large research or contract irradiation facilities, major capital costs include a radiation source (cobalt-60), hardware (irradiator, totes and conveyors, control systems, and other auxiliary equipment), land (1 to 1.5 acres), radiation shield, and warehouse. Operating costs include salaries (for fixed and variable labor), utilities, maintenance, taxes/insurance, cobalt-60 replenishment, general utilities, and miscellaneous operating costs
Treatment costs vary as a function of dose and facility usage. Low dose applications such as disinfestation of fruit range between $US 0.01/lbs and $US 0.08/lbs while higher dose applications can cost as much as $US 0.20 / lbs.
Opponents to food irradiation, consumer organizations and environmentalist groups refer to some studies suggesting that a large part of the public questions the safety of irradiated foods, and will not buy foods that have been irradiated.
On the other hand, other studies indicate the number of consumers concerned about the safety of irradiated food has decreased in the last 10 years and continues to be less than the number of those concerned about pesticide residues, microbiological contamination, and other food related concerns. The number of people reporting no concerns about irradiated food is among the lowest for food issues, comparable to that of people with no concern about food additives and preservatives. Consumers, given a choice and access to the real irradiated product are ready to buy it in considerably large numbers.
The provisions are that any 'first generation' product must be labelled 'irradiated' as any product derived directly from an irradiated raw material; for ingredients the provision is that even the last molecule of an irradiated ingredient must be listed with the ingredients even in cases where the unirradiated ingredient will not appear on the label. The RADURA-logo is optional; several countries use a graphical version which differs from the Codex-version.
In the US as in many other countries irradiated food must be labeled as "Treated with irradiation" or "Treated by radiation" and require the usage of the Radura symbol at the point of sale. However, the meaning of the label is not consistent. The amount of irradiation used can vary and since there are no published standards, the amount of pathogens affected by irradiation can be variable as well. In addition, there are no regulations regarding the levels of pathogen reduction that must be achieved. Food that is processed as an ingredient by a restaurant or food processor is exempt from the labeling requirement in the US; other countries follow the Codex Alimentarius provision to label irradiated ingredients down to the last molecule (cf. EU).
FDA is currently proposing a rule that in some cases would allow certain irradiated foods to be marketed without any labeling at all. Under the new rules, only those irradiated foods in which the irradiation causes a material change in the food, or a material change in the consequences that may result from the use of the food, would bear the Radura symbol and the term "irradiated", or a derivative thereof, in conjunction with explicit language describing the change in the food or its conditions of use. In the same rule FDA is proposing to permit a firm to use the terms "electronically pasteurized" or "cold pasteurized" in lieu of "irradiated", provided it notifies the agency that the irradiation process being used meets the criteria specified for use of the term "pasteurized".
Food irradiation is sometimes referred to as 'cold pasteurization' or 'electronic pasteurization' because ionizing the food does not heat the food to high temperatures during the process, as in heat-pasteurization (at a typical dose of 10 kGy, food that is physically equivalent to water would warm by about 2.5 °C). The treatment of solid food by ionizing radiation can provide an effect similar to heat pasteurization of liquids, such as milk. However, the use of the term, cold pasteurization, to describe irradiated foods is controversial, because pasteurization and irradiation are fundamentally different processes, although the intended end results can in some cases be similar.
Consumer perception of foods treated with irradiation is more negative than those which processed using other food processes. "People think the product is radioactive," said Harlan Clemmons, president of Sadex, a food irradiation company based in Sioux City, Iowa.
Each new food is approved separately with a guideline specifying a maximum dosage; in case of quarantine applications the minimum dose is regulated. Packaging materials containing the food processed by irradiation must also undergo approval.
note: The Radura logo as regulated by FDA is slightly different from the international version as proposed in Codex Alimentarius.
"Food irradiation is a pseudo-fix," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington, DC. "It's a way to try to come in and clean up problems that are created in the middle of the food production chain. I think it's clearly a disincentive to clean up the problems at the source.
Processors of irradiated food are subject to all existing regulations, inspections, and potential penalties regarding plant safety and sanitization; including fines, recalls, and criminal prosecutions. But critics of the practice claim that a lack of regulatory oversight (such as regular food processing plant inspections) necessitates irradiation.
"It's a total cop-out," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch. "They don't have the resources, the authority or the political will to really protect consumers from unsafe food.
While food irradiation can in some cases maintain the apparent quality of certain perishable food for a longer period of time, it cannot undo spoilage effects that occur prior to irradiation. Irradiation cannot be successfully used to mask quality issues other than pathogens. Under a HACCP-concept (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) radiation processing can serve and contribute as an ultimate critical control point.
National and international regulations on the levels and types of energy used to irradiate food generally set standards that prevent the possibility of inducing radioactivity in treated foods. Care must be taken not to expose the operators and the environment to radiation. Interlocks and safeguards are mandated to minimize this risk. Nevertheless there have been radiation related deaths and injury amongst workers of such facilities, many of them caused by the operators themselves overriding the interlocks. An incident in Decatur, Georgia where water soluble caesium-137 leaked into the source storage pool requiring NRC intervention has led to near elimination of this radioisotope; it has been replaced by the more costly, non-water soluble cobalt-60.
For quarantine purposes, insect pests can also be eliminated by fumigation with methyl bromide or aluminum phosphine, vapour heat, forced hot air, hot water dipping, or cold treatment.
Opponents to food irradiation and consumer activists (cf. Public Citizen) maintain that the best alternative to food irradiation to reduce pathogens is in good agricultural practices. For example, farmers and processing plants should improve sanitation practices, water used for irrigation and processing should be regularly tested for E. coli, and production plants should be routinely inspected. Concentrated animal feeding operations near farmland where produce is grown should be regulated.
Proponents of food irradiation have said that practices of organic farming can only reduce the extent of the microorganism load. They assert that residual flora including pathogen germs will always persist; and that processing by ionizing radiation could be the ultimate measure (as a CCP under a HACCP-concept) to practically eliminate such risks.