The most common cause of food poisoning in the UK could be successfully and safely killed by food radiation but consumer reticence to this food technology is a major obstacle, food scientist Dr Margaret Patterson told FoodNavigator.com this week.
"Despite the fact that radiation has been permitted in the UK since 1990, food manufacturers are not using the technology because consumers are very wary," said Dr Patterson.
"This is an understandable human response to radiation and nuclear but it really is a very safe and effective way to kill harmful bacteria."
Dr Patterson, a food scientist at Queens University in Belfast, has been working on the impact of irradiation on food bacteria for over 15 years and is totally convinced of its safety. Speaking this week at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, Dr Patterson presented her own personal view of radiation.
"Food radiation is internationally recognised as safe and the World Health Organisation has endorsed the technology," she said in an interview with FoodNavigator.com
"As a microbiologist, I set out to investigate how irradiation can not only kill harmful bacteria that causes food poisoning in humans but also how it can destroy spoilage bacteria and so offer longer shelf life to food products."
"Without a doubt, food radiation is a real benefit for the consumer. I often compare it to pasteurisation - both prevent food spoilage while at the same time killing harmful bacteria."
Food poisoning is a serious burden on governments across the world, and in particular in the West. There were 65,000 cases of food poisoning reported in the UK alone in 2000 but Dr Patterson said she believed the actual number of cases could be as much as 100 to 1000 higher. Of the reported cases in 2000, 50,000 were caused by campylobacter, a bacterium which is present in at least 50 per cent of raw chicken.
"The statisticians state that there is vast under-reporting on food poisoning. How many times have you had food poisoning and never reported it to your doctor?" she added.
But how can a technology viewed with suspicion by the majority of consumers hope to enter the food production process?
"Education is the key," said Dr Patterson. "US consumers in the 1990s were traditionally very negative towards food radiation. But then an event occurred that planted the seeds of change. Many consumers became ill, and some children died, from severe food poisoning. The poisoning was linked to hamburger meat infected with E.coli 014H7.
The US government reacted by imposing legislation relating to food irradiation in February 2000. It all came down to risk perception in the eyes of the consumer with severe food poisoning weighed up against radiation. I am told that today the demand for irradiated food products is actually increasing in the US. Unfortunately, it took a tragedy to change consumer perception about food radiation - it would be a shame if the same occurred in the UK.
Here, and in the rest of Europe, steps must be taken to educate the consumer about the safety and real benefits of food radiation technology."