I had the chance on June 23 to chat by telephone with Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minneapolis-based Minnesota Beef Council and author of the Food Irradiation Update monthly newsletter.
1:01 p.m. Tom Karst: Ron, I’ve noticed your food irradiation newsletter and am curious how you got involved with the issue.
1:02 p.m. Ron Eustice: I’m certainly familiar with food irradiation in the produce industry and I am watching it very closely. My original involvement with food irradiation goes back to some of the E. coli outbreaks with ground beef specifically. Then as we have seen more and more recalls related to produce, specifically spinach and leafy greens, I have branched out into that area with the encouragement of various segments of the food industry as well as the irradiation (industry).
Where the momentum is right now is in the area of disinfestation of mostly exotic produce that is coming in from a variety of countries.
1:03 p.m. Karst. How so?
1:03 p.m. Eustice: We have gone from about 10 million pounds of irradiated produce marketed in the U.S. in 2007 to over 30 million pounds today and that number is increasing dramatically.
What we’ve got right now is a tremendous amount of (irradiated) guava and some mangoes from Mexico. It is huge and more than I ever dreamed.
The other thing with irradiation is that it extends shelf life. At the dose we use – which is a very low dose for disinfestation – you wouldn’t expect a huge increase in shelf live but nevertheless you do get some increase in shelf life. In the case of India, this has allowed them to ship mangoes by sea rather than by air. So obviously India has been at a big disadvantage because they had to come in by air, but lately they have been shipping by sea and cutting the cost in half and actually being able to get mangoes here in 14 days. That has helped and their volume has been significant. Though (India’s) volume is nothing like Mexico, but at $36 per dozen you don’t need to sell a lot of mangoes. They are doing well.
1:07 p.m. Karst; We are talking about the use of irradiation on tropical fruit for disinfestation of insects, correct?
1:08 p.m. Eustice: At this point, but (irradiation) certainly has application as a food safety tool. There has been significant research done at the USDA Agriculture Research Service. They have got scientists there who have studied produce extensively — mostly spinach and lettuce — and irradiation doesn’t have any significant effect on nutritional qualities and the physical qualities remain intact as well
The Food Irradiation Processing Alliance actually served salad bowls of irradiated and non-irradiated spinach at the United Fresh Produce Association convention and people could not tell the difference.
There was actually a slight preference for the irradiated over the non-irradiated. Let’s put it this way; both were acceptable from a consumer standpoint.
1:08 p.m. Karst: How widespread is the use of irradiation the beef industry?
1:09 p.m. Eustice: About 15 million pounds of ground beef is irradiated annually. It is a small percent, but Schwan's and Omaha Steaks irradiate 100% of their ground beef and Wegmans in the Northeast also has offered irradiated ground beef and has for ten years.
It’s a small percent, but what we have got in the beef industry is not only E. coli 0157H7 but we have got five non-0157H7 serotypes that have suddenly appeared and they are as virulent as 0157H7 and we don’t’ have any other interventions that are as effective as irradiation.
A few more multi-million dollar lawsuits are going to make irradiation look like a very interesting alternative.
1:10 p.m. Karst: How expensive is irradiation?
1:11 pm. Eustice: It is not prohibitive, let’s put it that way. It is a whole lot less than a lawsuit. We are talking pennies a pound. Let’s say one of the big produce packers wanted to irradiate millions of pounds; I think they could negotiate a pretty darn good deal.
1:13 p.m. Karst: Do you see a time when irradiation is used for food safety purposes for produce?
1:14 p.m. Eustice: I believe it ought to be a routine practice for any food that is vulnerable to foodborne pathogens, whether it be ground beef or leafy green produce. I think we are at a point in this country that with the technology that we have, that it is unconscionable for us to market a product that we know likely contains a deadly pathogen and we have a tool that would prevent that foodborne illness from happening.