Food irradiation: a future in Europe?

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Although a controversial issue, the food irradiation industry in the US has been steadily growing over the past 10 years. In Europe the industry is still very much at grassroots level with applications for food irradiation still very limited. Arguably, key players based here rely on the strength of the US market for future growth.

Although a controversial issue, the food irradiation industry in the US has been steadily growing over the past 10 years. In Europe the industry is still very much at grassroots level with applications for food irradiation still very limited. Arguably, key players based here rely on the strength of the US market for future growth.

In the UK, Reviss is one of those key players, supplying and manufacturing food irradiation technologies in both Europe and the US.

One of the biggest challenges to European companies such as Reviss is to convince both legislators and consumers that the technique is a safe and effective way of ridding food of certain bacteria, such as E. coli and listeria.

"Here in Europe, the biggest barrier to the acceptance of food irradiation is largely down to the perception that consumers will not accept it,"​ said Dr Cathie Deeley, marketing manager for Reviss. "In the US consumers are given the choice of whether or not they want to accept foods that have been irradiated for their own consumption. Presently, 40 per cent of all ground beef there is irradiated, a measure that is widely accepted as being highly beneficial and one that has vastly improved food quality and safety. It just takes a tiny amount of E. coli to kill someone with a compromised immune system, and equally a tiny amount of E. coli can so easily be spread throughout the production process, contaminating huge numbers of production batches."

As food production facilities grow in size, a phenomenon that has come to characterise the identity of the US food industry and one that is expected to increasingly represent the European food industry as it consolidates, so too does the risk of bacteria spreading to vast amounts of processed food.

In the US and Japan, a number of large scale food poisoning scandals have brought some of the world's largest food processors to their knees. In 1998, the Sara Lee group suffered one of the most devastating food-borne poisoning outbreaks in recent years. Listeria in Sara Lee hot dogs caused 15 deaths, six miscarriages, over 100 cases of sickness and millions of dollars in compensation.

"In the past, incidences such as the Sara Lee outbreak have brought many consumers in the US round to the idea of food irradiation,"​ said Dr Deeley. "And more recently the rising threat of biological terrorist attacks since September 11th and a number of other food-borne poisoning outbreaks have thrown the spotlight back on irradiation. Such outbreaks mean that, very slowly, interest in food safety treatments such as irradiation is definitely increasing.

"However, in the UK and Europe, consumers are still not able to make the choice of whether or not they can buy irradiated foods. In the UK, the application and consumption of irradiated foods has now dropped off to zero. This is largely down to campaigns by environmentalist groups such as Greenpeace, which have used distorted facts to sway consumers away from irradiated foods. In Europe, and in particular the UK, the green movement has a great deal of power and can weald great influence on consumer trends. In this case, the consumer has not been given the full facts."

Those parties lobbying against the use of food irradiation claim that food irradiation deteriorates the chemical make up, promoting the increase of free radicals and depleting vitamin and mineral contents. However, representatives of the food irradiation industry say that the scientific evidence proves that the depletion of irradiated foods is absolutely minimal, with vitamin contents dropping by just a trace. The irradiation industry also claims that that there is no scientific evidence to prove that the process promotes free radicals.

"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 be treated."

The future of food irradiation in European 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.

This is clearly a frustrating situation for the European irradiation industry. At present there are 250 large-scale irradiation facilities worldwide, which each year treat some 250,000 tonnes of food products in 40 different countries. Europe accounts for only 12 such facilities licensed to irradiate food. The vast majority of irradiation treatment in Europe is used for medical products.

In America, where food irradiation is much more advanced, the picture is completely different. A number of large scale food recalls due to bacteria outbreaks in the past year, combined with the perceived threat of bio terrorism attacks on food sources, has increased interest in an already thriving industry.

One of the largest players there is Surebeam Technology. It promotes the use of food irradiation through electron beams and is currently expanding the production of its own line of irradiated meat products.

"A century ago people were complaining about the pasteurisation of milk,"​ said Surebeam spokesman Wil Williams. "The same arguments that were used about milk pasteurisation are being used about irradiated foods today. Now pastuerisation is considered to be one of the safest food safety processes around. You wouldn't think about drinking unpasteurised milk because of the threat of E. coli. Similarly, I believe that irradiated foods will go the same way as pasteurisation, and it will become a commonly accepted food safety method."

In the US, where consumers currently have the choice of whether or not to buy irradiated foods, it appears that the irradiated food industry looks destined for further growth. Whether or not the same will happen in Europe remains to be seen, but for the immediate future, key players here will still have to look to the US for further growth.

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