Chip Starns sees big irradiation opportunities south of the border.
Starns said his company, Houston-based ScanTech Sciences Inc., plans to build 20 irradiation plants in Mexico and Central and South America over the next five years to process fresh fruits and vegetables headed for the U.S.
The U.S. market for irradiated produce is poised for significant expansion, Starns said, as traditional treatment methods are phased out and the food industry seeks more effective, efficient ways to combat pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.
“It’s pretty much in the infancy stage, but you can see the wave coming,” said Starns, ScanTech’s vice president. Irradiation “could open up even more an already-global food supply.”
ScanTech uses an electron beam to break down the DNA of bacteria and insects, killing them or making them unable to reproduce. Other types of irradiation use gamma or X-rays.
Food irradiation has been in use for almost 50 years in the U.S. and is endorsed by medical and public health organizations, but just a fraction of fresh produce is treated with irradiation and it faces an uphill climb for consumer acceptance.
One significant barrier lies with major supermarket chains, mainly because of a belief that consumers won’t buy irradiated foods, said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis.
The market for irradiated food will grow “if one can convince the stores — the gatekeepers here — to offer the produce,” Bruhn said.
The Food and Drug Administration requires irradiated food sold in the U.S. carry the radura symbol with the words “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.”
Additionally, regulatory approval is needed for more fresh produce before irradiation is more widely used.
The FDA in 2008 approved the irradiation of iceberg lettuce and spinach for pathogen control and shelf-life extension. But irradiation hasn’t yet been approved for other leafy greens or for other vegetables, such as cabbage and carrots.
Irradiated food sold in the U.S. must carry the radura symbol and the words "treated with irradiation" or "treated by irradiation."
That’s a “major obstacle” to a bigger irradiation market in the U.S., Bruhn said. Approved and unapproved vegetables can’t be mixed in packaged salads and then irradiated, for example.
“FDA needs to approve a broader range of leafy green products,” Bruhn said. “For the technology to be used, the FDA is going to have to give more approvals for irradiation to be used as a ‘kill’ step.”