Food irradiation, the application of ionizing radiation to food in a controlled setting, is a technology that improves the safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects. Like pasteurizing milk and canning fruits and vegetables, irradiation can make food safer for the consumer, according to the U.S. FDA.
In the U.S., the most dramatic growth in the use of irradiation in recent years is for phytosanitary issues, most especially to eliminate fruit flies from tropical fruits, according to Ron Eustice, MBA, a food quality and safety consultant based in Tucson, Ariz. Eustice is the founder (2010) and editor of Food Irradiation Update, a newsletter featuring U.S. and global food irradiation news. He also maintains www.foodirradiation.org, a website that provides educators, the public, the irradiation industry, and others with current, science-based information related to the irradiation of food.
“Some 12 countries have trade agreements to export about a dozen specific tropical fruits to the U.S., and among those countries, commercial irradiation is often the preferred method of pest control, and in some cases the only method that is acceptable to the USDA,” Eustice says. Australia and India are the leading countries that export tropical fruits to the U.S., based on volume.
Thailand, India, Mexico, Philippines, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, South Africa, Pakistan, Peru, Australia, and Dominican Republic have signed Framework Equivalency Work Plans (FEWP) with USDA for irradiation, according to the USDA APHIS Phytosanitary Issues Management unit. FEWPs facilitate exports of fruits to the U.S and allow U.S. farmers to export their crops to participating countries, Eustice notes.
“Hawaii is the biggest shipper of tropical fruits to the U.S. mainland, an estimated 14.3 million pounds of irradiated produce in 2014,” Eustice points out, “with purple sweet potato ranking first in volume. Longan, rambutan, sweet basil, dragon fruit, papaya, curry leaf, banana, and mango follow in approximate order.”
Some 22 fruits require irradiation before shipment from Hawaii to the mainland.
Opened in 2012 at the Biloxi, Miss., airport, Gateway America LLC, which claims to be the first irradiation facility having the ability to accept product via air, sea freight, or road, irradiates raw oysters to non-detectable levels of Vibrio vulnificus, and in 2014 added the capability to irradiate persimmons from South Africa.
Relative to facility safety and environmental impact, there have been a few accidents at commercial radiation facilities over the past 25 years, according to the U.S. EPA. The incidents resulted when safety systems and control procedures were bypassed, EPA says.
Recommended reading for more information:
- Rules and Regulations for U.S. Irradiation Facilities
- USDA Irradiation Rules
- Irradiation of Produce Imports: Small Inroads, Big Obstacles
- The Food Irradiation Chronicles: Delivering Food to People Around the World
Updated Radiation Recovery Handbooks
In early June 2015, Public Health England (PHE) issued Food Production Systems Handbook Version 4 as part of its set of U.K. Recovery Handbooks for Radiation Incidents 2015, which also includes Inhabited Areas Handbook Version 4 and Drinking Water Supplies Handbook Version 4.
All three handbooks are billed as being designed to aid the decision-making process for developing and implementing a recovery strategy in the aftermath of a radiation incident.
To that end, the handbooks state that they are aimed at national and local authorities, central government departments and agencies, radiation and health protection experts, emergency services, industry, and others who may be involved in the recovery from a radiation incident.
Sources of contamination considered in the handbook include nuclear accidents (such as the incidents that occurred at the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear power plants) and radiological dispersion devices (a.k.a. dirty bombs).