The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) found that a significant percentage of dried noodles available on the market contained one or more ingredients that had been irradiated, but were not labelled as such, as required by law.
Regulation of the use of irradiation in the food sector is inconsistent around the world and within the EU's borders, according to a legislative overview of the technology, published in January by the UK's Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST).
The FSAI examined a range of 55 dried noodle products, along with the individual sachets of seasoning and vegetables that accompanied them. The testing showed that 25 per cent of the products contained ingredients that had been irradiated.
All of the products that had been treated with irradiation were produced outside the EU, but none carried the mandatory labelling stipulated by the EU framework directive governing the use of the technique.
The FSAI has notified the food retailers where the products were purchased and asked that all affected batches be removed from sale. The European Commission and other EU member states have also been notified through the bloc's rapid alert system.
A definitive list of foods authorised for irradiation is being developed by the European Commission, but as yet only dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings are included.
A range of 27 other foods may be irradiated under existing member state authorisations until the EU list has been completed. Importation of irradiated food into the EU is permitted as long as the food is appropriately labelled, is on the EU-positive list or authorised by individual member states. The irradiation must have been done in EU-authorised plants.
Under EU legislation, a food may be irradiated only if manufacturers can demonstration that there is a reasonable technological need, that the process does not present a health hazard, and is of benefit to consumers.
The legislation also requires that the irradiation must not be used as a substitute for hygiene and health practices or for good manufacturing or agricultural practice.
Irradiation exposes foods to ionizing radiation that kills insects, moulds and bacterium. The technology, which can kill up to 99 per cent of pathogens, is seen by the industry as a means of ensuring food safety.
However public concerns over the health effects of the technology has meant global food companies have had to deal with a confusing thicket of legislation and restrictions when making and marketing their products.
While food irradiation is slowly gaining consumer acceptance in the US and several other countries, the technology has been slow to get support within many parts of Europe, including the UK, where the Food Standards Agency (FSA) recommends no extension of its application from current permitted uses.
The method has been been endorsed as safe for foods and health by the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the Codex Alimentarius, an international standards-setting body.
"Irradiation, carried out under conditions of good manufacturing practice, is commended as an effective, widely applicable food processing method judged to be safe on extensive available evidence, that can reduce the risk of food poisoning, control food spoilage and extend the shelf-life of foods without detriment to health and with minimal effect on nutritional or sensory quality," the IFST stated in the report.
Despite the evidence, regulators both within and without the EU have taken different approaches to allowing processors to use the technology. To date, about 50 countries have approved about 60 products to be irradiated. The US, South Africa, the Netherlands, Thailand and France are among the leaders in adopting the technology.
Currently regulations on food irradiation in the European Union are not fully harmonised. Directive 1999/2/EC establishes a framework for controlling irradiated foods, their labelling and importation, while Directive 1999/3 establishes an initial positive list of foods which may be irradiated and traded freely between member states.
So far the positive list has only one food category - dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings. Some countries, such as Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK allow other foods to be irradiated, whereas other countries, such as Denmark, Germany and Luxembourg remain opposed, the IFST reported. Within the UK seven categories of foods can be irradiated to specified doses.
Regulations across the world make provision for labelling to ensure that consumers are fully informed whether foods or ingredients within them have been irradiated. The IFST believes that more effort should be made to overcome the consumer reaction to the technology through publicity and educational campaign by professional bodies.