I chatted June 25 with Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Beef Council and author of the Food Irradiation Update monthly newsletter
1:00 p.m. Tom Karst: You recently said you will retire soon.
1:02 p.m. Ron Eustice: Yes, let’s call it transition. Technically I’m retiring in October, but I’m really transitioning because I’m going to continue to work on irradiation; I’ve got several opportunities. I will be an independent consultant in the food irradiation industry. What I want to do going forward is devote more time to moving food irradiation in a positive direction. You haven’t seen the last of me.
1:04 p.m. Karst: What will you be involved with?
1:05 p.m. Eustice: I (will) continue to publish the Food Irradiation Update, which has about 3,000 folks that receive it every month. It is the primary source, if not the only source, of information of what is happening with food irradiation around the world. I continue to be invited by various entities, national governments, conferences and others to speak at food irradiation events around the world. I’ve just come back from Korea, at the invitation of the Korean government for the third time in the past three years. Almost on a daily basis I’m getting inquiries about information on food irradiation all over the world.
1:07 p.m. Karst: Relative to irradiation for food, how do you see its arc over the past 15 years or so?
1:08 p.m. Eustice: It has grown, there is no question. It has grown and continues to grow. The major growth right is in the area of tropical produce coming from various countries around the world such as Mexico, India, Thailand, Vietnam and also the state of Hawaii. We have seen a 300% growth in the volume of irradiated produce that has come into the U.S. over the past three years. It is now something in the neighborhood of 35 million to 40 million pounds of produce, all of which has been marketed at retail without one consumer complaint that we know of. Consumer acceptance has been outstanding. In fact, I know of retailers who have said “We want to know who has the irradiated produce so we can put it in to our grocery stores.”
1:10 p.m. Karst: Is the produce irradiated at source or on arrival in the U.S.?
1:11 p.m. Eustice: Both. This is an interesting development. The USDA Animal Plant Health Inspection Service has signed framework equivalency agreements with ten countries and there are probably close to five more that are pending. Some of the countries are required to have USDA inspectors on site when the irradiation occurs. That is expensive and not every (inspector) wants to go to India in the middle of their hot summer. In Hawaii, there is a facility that has been irradiating about 10 million pounds per year for the past 10 to 12 years.
What is happening now is that there are two major facilities in Mexico that are irradiating guavas and mangoes in huge volumes. USDA has signed agreements to have local inspectors on site, and that works pretty well. So that volume has rapidly risen and Mexico is by far the largest supplier of tropical (irradiated) produce to the U.S. The guavas are irradiated and some of the mangoes are irradiated and there will be more in the future because these are good (irradiation) companies and highly efficient and very serious about irradiating tropical produce. There are two facilities that are being built. One is in Hawaii. There is another facility that is scheduled to go up in Gulfport, Mississippi. That will be a custom service provided for offshore countries that are not yet ready not build their own (irradiation) facilities and have smaller volumes but want to enter the U.S. market.
An irradiation facility in Sioux City Iowa has been doing some irradiation for Pakistan mangoes. The mangoes from Pakistan have been flown into Chicago, trucked to Sioux city and irradiated there.
1:15 p.m. Karst: What do people refer to when they talk about the cost of irradiation?
1:16 p.m. Eustice: It all depends. I’m not the one negotiating the contracts. My answer is always that it is pennies a pound. I think it is less than methyl bromide is going to cost.
1:17: p.m. Karst: Are other countries accepting irradiated fruit?
1:18 p.m. Eustice; Australia in 2006 exported 200 metric tons of irradiated mangoes to New Zealand, in 2011, they exported 1,262 metric tons of mangoes to New Zealand.
Mexico and Hawaii together are shipping some 30 million pounds of irradiated produce to the U.S. and then we have some activity out of Vietnam with dragon fruit, and India and Pakistan with mangoes and Thailand is doing litchi and rambutan.
1:20 p.m. Karst: How do you see irradiation developing over the next ten years?
1:22 p.m. Eustice: I see steady growth. A senior meats person from one of the major retailers sent me a note just last week and said ‘I’m with you 100 percent; we need to use this technology and we need to have it as a tool so we can offer (ground beef) to consumers as a safe product,”
1:23 p.m. Karst: What do think about the use of irradiation on leafy green vegetables? Do you think that we will ever see that in the market place?
1:24 p.m. Eustice: First of all, it works just fine. The challenge is the logistics because production is so seasonal. Harvest starts around Brawley California and moves north. What would be ideal if you could have a facility that would be in a central area and could (irradiate) other types of products, such as medical items. That’s the ideal thing. It is just a matter of finding a niche.
As far as spinach and lettuce, what is holding us back is that a lot of the salad mixes include a variety of different greens and that are not all approved for irradiation (by the FDA). They approved spinach and they approved iceberg lettuce There are several pending approvals of various commodities (at FDA) If we had approval of all green vegetables, that would be helpful. Maybe what it is going to take is another big recall.