A British Columbia company hopes to begin irradiating packaged leafy greens for a major U.S. food supplier within six months.
Tino Pereira, chief executive officer for Iotron Industries Inc., said client tests have been completed and the company is applying for certification from the Food and Drug Administration.
“We have a customer, but I can’t name them yet,” Pereira said.
The 22-year-old Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, company expanded into the U.S. in March 2012 with a 54,000-square-foot facility in Columbus City, Ind.
Pereira said the plant has been working with the medical, aerospace and defense industries, providing sterilization and resin curing processes.
Unlike gamma ray or X-ray irradiation, Iotron uses electron beam technology. Pereira said no radioactive materials are involved.
“We take electricity and run it through an electron beam accelerator and deliver it to the product via a magnetic field,” he said. “The beam kills pests and pathogens by attacking their DNA.”
The FDA approved such treatments of fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce in 2008, but a lack of facilities along with consumer misperceptions and producers’ cost concerns have kept the produce industry from embracing the technology, Pereira said.
Western Growers science and technology manager Sonia Salas said irradiation is gaining more attention, especially as pathogen-related recalls continue to plague the produce industry.
She said it has the potential to be beneficial to growers and shippers of leafy greens.
“One of the big hurdles is the investment needed to have (treatment) facilities,” Salas said.
“At this moment it is really difficult for an individual producer to adopt it. Regional or local facilities could be an option to … minimize the cost.”
Pereira said the cost of e-beam treatment should be balanced with its benefits.
He described it as a risk mitigation tool for food safety issues. For bagged leafy greens, he said e-beam treatment is best provided just before the product is delivered to retail so that pathogens introduced along the supply chain will be destroyed as close to the end-user as possible.
The process takes microseconds of beam exposure, Pereira said.
The temperature of the greens increases by less than 1 degree Celsius, thus maintaining the cold chain.
Other kinds of irradiation take longer, he said.
“Our quick turnaround time is our big advantage,” he said. “We can unload, treat and reload a semi trailer and get the product back on its way in two to three hours.”
That delay, even when extra transportation time to the facility is factored in, is negated by the fact that the treatment increases shelf life, Pereira and others said.
Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis, has been studying irradiation for years.
She said decades of research have shown it kills 99.999% of pathogens and 90% to 99% of decay bacteria on leafy greens.
Brendan Niemira, lead scientist of food safety and intervention technologies at the Eastern Regional Research Center operated by the U.S, Department of Agriculture, reported similar kill rates.
Niemira added that the nutritional value and sensory quality of leafy greens are not significantly affected at the low doses used for fresh produce.