Food irradiation, ongoing support from IFT

Related tags Food irradiation Food Food technology

Leading food science body the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)
defends the oft-criticised use of food irradiation in food
production, brushing away criticisms that this technology could
harm human health.

Food irradiation is a proven, beneficial method of improving the safety of the food supply and poses no human health threat, said the non profit group, the IFT, in a recent article.

"The summary supports the use of this technology as a means to inactivate pathogens, maintain quality, and increase shelf life, as part of an effective overall food processing management system,"​ writes the organisation.

Irradiation, used to prolong the shelf life of food products and/or to reduce health hazards, is a physical treatment of food with high-energy, ionising radiation. Although an accepted manufacturing process in the USA and approved for use since 1963 to control mold and insect infestation in wheat and to inhibit the growth of sprouts on potatoes, the European consumer remains sceptical of the food safety aspect.

Currently, in Europe each country has its own recommendations for the application of irradiation on foods. These vary greatly from country to country, the most liberal being France and Belgium where a variety of foods, including frog's legs and de-boned chicken, can be treated with irradiation. In other countries, such as the UK and Germany, only dried herbs, spices and vegetable seasoning can use this processing technology.

The future of food irradiation in Europe lies in the hands of the European Commission, which is the only legislator in Europe with the power to approve new food categories for irradiation. The only food category it currently lists as suitable for treatment throughout the European Union is dried herbs, spices and vegetables.

The IFT report, published this month in Food Technology​ counters 'misleading claims that irradiation produces worrisome carcinogenic byproducts, is harmful to the environment, substantially reduces food macro- and micro-nutrients, or that its use allows for sloppy practices elsewhere in the food processing line.'

At the same time, the report calls for new research to focus on: pathogen reduction protocols allowing for standards in pathogen control levels; inactivation of viruses in ready-to-eat foods and minimally processed fruits and vegetables; irradiating packaged meals; packaging advancements affecting sensory attributes.

A clear sign that the US is more willing to embrace the technology, last year the US government funded a National Center for Electron Beam Food Research at Texas A&M University, primarily to look at the benefits of electron beam technology to use electricity as an energy source for irradiating foods to kill dangerous microorganisms.

"After more than 40 years of research, declared a safe food preservation process by FDA and supported specifically by American Medical Association, the Institute of Food Technologists, American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organisation and many other organisations - food irradiation is here to help fight foodborne disease,"​ said Dr McLellan, director of the new centre.

If the research work carried out at the A&M University can convince experts in Europe that the process is safe then the centre's work could be pivotal to the more widespread implementation of the process in Europe.

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