The process 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.
The new report, released on Friday by US-based Food & Water Watch, caps off a week of co-ordinated protests worldwide against the technology by consumer groups. The week-long action, meant to focus public attention on the use of the technology, has been an annual event since 2003.
Events ranging from educational forums to protest rallies were held in the US, Italy, France, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, highlighting what organisations like Food & Water Watch say are the dangers posed by irradiated foods and by the facilities where they are irradiated.
The organisation argues that consumers should be wary of irradiated food, claiming that in addition to killing pathogens, the technology also depletes vitamins and creates new chemicals in foods that affect taste and smell. Studies have shown that irradiation destroys vitamin A, beta-carotene, and vitamin C in potatoes, orange juice and other foods, the organisation stated.
"Irradiation is a band-aid, not a cure," Food & Water Watch stated. "It’s an expensive technology that does not address contamination at the processing plant and may damage the food. Consumers around the world deserve better."
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.
The EU has placed a hold on further irradiation approvals in the bloc until member states come to a concensus on the safety of some chemicals formed when food is exposed to radiation.
The bloc is also studing the safety of “radiolytic products”, known as cyclobutanones, which have been linked to genetic damage, Food & Water Watch claimed, without citing the source.
European anti-irradiation organisations have launched a campaign working to maintain the freeze on further irradiation approvals and to challenge existing approvals to reduce the amount of irradiated food in Europe.
One such action group is The French Collective Against Food Irradiation, a coalition of food, environment, anti-nuclear and other consumer organisations. The French collective is currently writing a report on the global food irradiation situation and plans to publish it later this year. The report will be used to try to reinvigorate the debate on food irradiation in France and Europe, Food & Water Watch stated.
In France companies are allowed to irradiate frozen herbs, garlic, shallots, casein, egg whites, frozen shrimp, poultry, frozen frogs legs and additional foods.
Due to the public concerns, EU regulators are monitoring the situation and turning up undeclared irradiation in foods, serving to make the public even more suspicious about the technology. For example both the UK and Ireland's governments have reported finding illegally irradiated food products in 2006.
The UK reported that half of all food supplements tested were either wholly irradiated or contained an irradiated ingredient. None of the irradiated products were labeled.
In Ireland, 14 samples of noodles tested positive for irradiated ingredients. None of them were labeled. All irradiated products were removed from sale.
In the US, roughly 50 irradiation facilities are used are used mainly for medical supplies and other non-food items. Food irradiation is unpopular among consumers in the country, in part because of federal labeling rules, the organisation reported.
The US requires all single-ingredient irradiated foods sold in stores to be labeled as “Treated with Irradiation” and to carry the “radura” symbol. However, irradiated food served in restaurants, hospitals, schools, nursing homes, day-care centers and other institutional settings do not require a label.
In August 2005, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) legalised the irradiation of molluscan shellfish, including oysters, clams and mussels.
Still pending before the FDA are industry requests to irradiated crustacean shellfish -- including shrimp, crabs and lobsters -- and ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats, prebagged salads, frozen meals and baby food.
"A string of failures makes it clear there is little demand for irradiated food in the US," the organisation reported. "As a result of low consumer demand, several irradiation companies have struggled."
The 2004 bankruptcy of San Diego-based SureBeam was the most notable failure, the organisation noted. The bankruptcy resulted in the virtual end of irradiated meat sales and the idling of three irradiators, in Sioux City, Iowa, and near Chicago and Los Angeles.
Sadex bought SureBeam’s Sioux City facility and reportedly has restarted the plant. Another failure was the closure of a food irradiation facility operated by CFC Logistics in Milford Township, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia.
CFC Logistics, an affiliate of Hatfield Quality Meats, faced significant opposition from local residents concerned about the safety of the facility and about irradiated foods in general, the organisation reported.
The cobalt-60 facility had to shut down after a year and a half of operation, citing low demand for irradiated food, particularly for the US department of agriculture's school lunch programme.
On May 29, 2003, the USDA dropped its ban on irradiated ground beef in federal nutrition programmes. In September 2004, schools had the choice of using irradiated ground beef supplies at a cost of 29-80 cents more per pound than non-irradiated ground beef.
The choice to serve irradiated beef was left up to local school officials. Nebraska, Texas and Minnesota made requests for irradiated beef during the first year of the programme but their orders were never filled due to the higher cost.
For the past three school years, no states have ordered irradiated ground beef through the USDA. About a dozen school districts, including Los Angeles; Washington, DC, and Iowa City, Iowa, have banned irradiated food, citing health concerns and parental opposition.
In the fall of 2006, food irradiation received renewed media attention in the US following the E. coli outbreak in spinach from California. As a publicity stunt, Sadex chief executive David Corbin ate spinach intentionally contaminated with E. coli and then irradiated.
Sadex is among several companies that have claimed future outbreaks could be controlled by using irradiation. The FDA has only approved irradiation for fruits and vegetables for plant pests, and not for killing pathogen contamination.
Meanwhile Pa’ina Hawaii, is attempting to build a food irradiation facility next to Honolulu International Airport on Oahu. The treatment plant would use cobalt-60 to irradiate produce for export.
The main companies providing irradiator services in the US are Sadex Corp., Hawaii Pride and Food Technology Services. Sadex purchased SureBeam’s e-beam irradiator in Sioux City, Iowa. Food Technology Service in Florida irradiates food at its cobalt-60 facility in Mulberry. Former SureBeam partner Hawaii Pride operates an X-ray irradiator for papayas and other tropical fruit in Hilo.
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.
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.
The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization/International Atomic Energy Agency Division of Nuclear Techniques in Agriculture is currently working to harmonise irradiation regulations worldwide. The ultimate goal is for member nations to comply with new labelling and treatment standards enforceable through the World Trade Organisation.
A World Health Organisation scientific report in 1992 found that irradiation posed no risk to human health.
The International Irradiation Association (iiA) is an industry-funded organisation that is also working to harmonize regulations worldwide and develop new uses for radiation technologies.
The membership includes irradiation service providers, suppliers of irradiation facilities and equipment, consultants, suppliers of items such as dosimeters and users of the irradiation services. As of March 2006, the iiA had 38 member companies in 16 countries.
Meanwhile the International Council on Food Irradiation (ICFI) is a new international, non-governmental organisation that promotes irradiation to government regulators, the food and nuclear industries, and health professionals around the world.
It replaced the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation, which for many years was the leading industry and government organisation that advised the World Health Organization, IAEA and FAO on irradiation research, policy and advocacy.
It also advised the the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which in 2003 followed the group’s recommendation to permit any food to be irradiated at any dose, no matter how high, the Food & Water Watch report stated.
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.
The US National Centre for Policy Analysis estimates that if half the food at greatest risk consumed in the country were to be irradiated, food-borne illnesses would decline by 900,000 cases annually and deaths by 352. The centre estimates irradiation would cost about five cents per pound for meat and poultry products.