Experts: Irradiation a piece of complex puzzle

01/13/2009 12:00:00 AM
Don Schrack

(Jan. 13, 2:35 p.m.) There are more than a few hurdles to overcome before the use of irradiation for food safety purposes becomes widespread in the fresh produce industry, experts said in a Jan. 12 Web seminar.

The seminar was presented by the Center for Produce Safety and the Postharvest Technology Research & Information Center, both based at the University of California-Davis.

Not among those hurdles is a negative public perception of irradiation, however, said Carolyn Bruhn, a U.C.-Davis professor.

“Don’t confuse consumer reaction with statements from activists,” she said. “If consumers can be shown there is a real benefit, they are willing to pay for it.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the use of irradiation on iceberg lettuce and spinach in August, a decision nearly eight years after grower-shippers petitioned the agency, Leslie Krasney, general counsel for the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., said in the Web seminar.

“The regulations on food additive petitions technically require the FDA to act within 180 days,” she said. “As a practical matter, FDA usually wants further information, and the process can drag on for years.”

There are signs, Krasney said, that the agency is prepared to move more quickly.

“The FDA may review petitions on an expedited basis, providing the use of the additive is intended to significantly decrease pathogens and the petition must be considered complete,” she said. “From the FDA’s standpoint, that means a petition must arrive with sufficient information to support a decision.”

The cost of building an irradiation facility is a factor. Construction and equipment costs can range from $3 million to $20 million, said Harlan Clemmons, president and chief operating officer of Sadex Corp., Sioux City, Iowa, which operates an irradiation facility serving the food industry.

Several irradiation methods are available, he said, including cobalt 60, X-ray, and electron beam. Cobalt 60 can treat a 40,000 pound truck load in 4 1/2 hours or less, Clemmons said, while the electron beam equipment processes a like amount of food in less than 2 1/2 hours. The slowest of the methods is X-ray, which can take up to 22 hours to treat a 40,000 pound load of food, he said.

Whatever method is used, irradiation is not food safety foolproof, said Robert Buchanan, the former chief science officer at the FDA and now a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Food Systems Safety and Security.

“I’m only talking about reductions of microorganisms — I’m not talking about elimination,” he said.


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