Food irradiation: Public attitude & commerce

Many consumers are quite willing to buy irradiated foods. This is particularly true if the purpose of the irradiation is clearly indicated.


Consumers are interested in a process that eliminates harmful microbes from the food and reduce the risk of foodborne disease. In test marketing of specific irradiated foods, consumers have shown that they are willing to buy them. Typically at least half will buy the irradiated food, if given a choice between irradiated product and the same product non-irradiated. If consumers are first educated about what irradiation is and why it is done, approximately 80% will buy the product in these marketing tests.

The effectiveness of the treatment in eliminating pathogens will be regulated as a food safety process, by either the USDA or the FDA, often in concert with State authorities, just as is the case now for milk pasteurization or retort canning.

The safety of operations of irradiation facilities is regulated separately. This requires extensive worker training, supervision, and regulatory oversight. Facilities using radioactive sources are regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). To be licensed, the facility must have been designed with multiple fail-safe measures, and must establish extensive and well documented safety procedures, and worker training. The safe transport of the radioactive sources is regulated by the Department of Transportation.

E-beam and X-ray sources are not monitored by the NRC, but rather by the part of the FDA that regulates medical X-ray devices, and by the same State authorities that regulate other medical, dental and industrial uses of these technologies.

Medical sterilization facilities have been operated in this country for more than 30 years, without a fatal accident. Over 100 such facilities are currently licensed, along with at least that many medical radiation treatment centers, and bone marrow transplant centers (which also use Cobalt 60 to irradiate patients). No events have been documented in this country that led to exposure of the population at large to radioactivity. In other countries, a small number of fatal incidents have been documented in which a worker bypassed multiple safety steps to enter the chamber while the source was exposed, resulting in a severe or even lethal radiation injury to themselves.

Cobalt 60 is manufactured in a commercial nuclear reactor, by exposing non-radioactive cobalt to intense radiation in the reactor core. Cesium 137 is a by-product of the manufacture of weapons-grade radioactive substances. Thus the supply of these two substances, like that of other radioactive materials used in medicine, science and industry, is dependent on the nuclear industry.

The food irradiation facilities themselves do not become radioactive, and do not create radioactive waste. The cobalt sources used in irradiation facilities decay by 50% in five years, and therefore require periodic replacement. The small radioactive cobalt "pencils" are shipped back to the original nuclear reactor, where they can be recharged for further use. The shipment occurs in special hardened steel canisters that have been designed and tested to survive crashes without breaking. Cobalt is a solid metal, and even if somehow something should break, it will not spread through the environment. Cobalt 60 may also be disposed of as a radioactive waste. Given its relatively short half life(5 years) and its stable metallic form, the material is not considered to be a problematic waste.

The food to be irradiated will often already be in its final package. This raises the question about whether the irradiation has any effect on the packaging that might be transferred to the foods. The effect of irradiation on plastics and other packaging was investigated in the 1960s and early 1970s, in order to identify safe packaging materials for use in the space program. A limited number of materials have been approved for use in packaging food that is to be irradiated. This limited number reflects the limited needs of NASA, not the difficulty of identifying safe products. Many modern packaging materials have simply not been tested. Testing and approving a wider array of packaging materials is critical to the successful commercialization of irradiated foods.

A distinctive logo has been developed for use on food packaging, in order to identify the product as irradiated. This symbol is called the "radura" and is used internationally to mean that the food in the package has been irradiated. A written description may also be present, such as "Irradiated to destroy harmful microbes". It is not required to label a food if a minor ingredient of the food, such as a spice, has been irradiated itself.



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