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.”
“I see that moving slowly until the FDA broadens their approvals into other leafy greens,” she said.
Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public affairs for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, also noticed the lack of demand for irradiated fruits and vegetables, and said there are concerns about the potential of increased costs.
“I don’t think there’s a compelling consumer desire for these products. We have not seen a hue and cry from consumers to bring on irradiated leafy greens,” she said. “You probably won’t find any irradiated produce in mainstream supermarkets.”
Starns said he’s undeterred by obstacles to greater irradiation acceptance. As older technologies are phased out and public acceptance grows, Starns foresees the U.S. irradiated food market generating more than $1 billion in revenue a year.
“Once consumers understand that the electron beam technology used to treat the foods is safe, approved and does not use harsh chemicals, toxins, or leave any residue, they will demand this type of quality,” Starns said.
“This irradiation technology ensures the global food supply remains safe and provides superior quality,” he said.
The biggest hurdles for irradiation, said Ron Eustice, an industry consultant, involve “misinformation propogated by anti-technology groups.”
“It’s very clear that with a little bit of information, consumer acceptance is very high” for irradiated food, Eustice said.
Bruhn sees growth opportunities in the U.S. for exotic fruits, such as irradiated mangoes from India and Thailand that have been approved for import. Last year, irradiated guavas were approved for import from Mexico.
Starns said part of ScanTech’s appeal is expediency. The company’s system can treat crates of fruits and vegetables in seconds, Starns said.
For mangoes, a 20-ton truckload from Mexico would need a 90-minute hot water bath followed by a four-hour cool down before the fruit can be shipped into the U.S. ScanTech’s system could treat the same truckload in less than an hour, Starns said.
The U.S. imported $5.83 billion worth of fruits and vegetables from Mexico in 2009, up 35% from $4.31 billion in 2005, according to Foreign Agriculture Service data.
ScanTech hasn’t yet decided specifically where it will build its first irradiation facility, though it’s likely it will be in Mexico near Texas border cities such as Laredo or McAllen, Starns said.
Mexico has at least two irradiation plants. Sterigenics International, in the central state of Hidalgo, is approved to treat food and medical products, including mangoes that are imported into the U.S.; and Phytosan SA's Benebion facility near Guadalajara. The Benebion facility is not operational yet, but is expected to be processing fresh produce by the end of 2010, according to a Benebion spokesman.
There are a handful of irradiation firms in the U.S., including Hawaii Pride LLC and Mulberry, Fla.-based Food Technology Service, Inc.
ScanTech recently received a $2 million equity investment from Texas’ Emerging Technology Fund and is looking for joint-venture partners to help raise another $20 million, Starns said. ScanTech also hired Taylor Freres & Cie, an investment bank based in Switzerland, to help raise capital.
(Note on correction: The original article did not include information about the Sterigenics facility in Mexico.)