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Radiation Physics and Chemistry 63 (2002) 211215

Food irradiationFpast, present and future


J.F. Diehl*
Wildbader Str.6, D 76228 Karlsruhe, Germany

Abstract

A review is presented of historical developments, the present situation, and expected future developments in the eld
of food irradiation. Acceptance of the process in different parts of the world is not uniform. In the USA and in some
other countries where health authorities actively encourage the use of this technology, commercial application has
greatly advanced in recent years. In contrast, progress in the European Union is still slow. r 2002 Published by Elsevier
Science Ltd.

Keywords: Radiation processing; Food preservation; Review

1. The past However, technological developments during World


War II produced equipment that could be adapted to
The early history of food irradiation is the history of improve radiation processing. Klystron tubes developed
radiation itself. Roentgen discovered X-rays in 1895, for radar were used to construct electron accelerators of
Becquerel recognized radioactivity in 1896. An outburst very high power, and radioisotopes generated in nuclear
of research on the biological effects of ionizing radiation reactors became available for large gamma ray sources.
on living organisms followed these discoveries. Enter- Early studies on food preservation using such radiation
prising inventors soon found practical applications of sources were described by Josephson (1983).
radiation. British Patent No. 1609 was issued in 1905 to Reports from the United States about successful
J. Appleby and A. J. Banks for their invention to bring experiments on irradiation of food stimulated similar
about an improvement in the condition of foodstuffs efforts in other countries. By the mid- or late 1950s,
and in their general keeping quality. They proposed national research programs on food irradiation were
the treatment of food, especially cereals, with alpha, beta also underway in Belgium, Canada, France, The Federal
or gamma rays from radium or other radioactive Republic of Germany, Netherlands, Poland, the Soviet
substances, stressing the exceptionally marked advan- Union, and the United Kingdom. The rst commercial
tage of an entire absence of the direct use or employment use of food irradiation occurred in 1957 in Germany,
of chemical compounds. B. Schwartz of the US when a spice manufacturer in Stuttgart began to
Department of Agriculture suggested the use of X-rays improve the hygienic quality of its products by irradiat-
for inactivating trichinae in pork in 1921. A French ing them with electrons, using a van de Graaff
patent was granted in 1930 to the German engineer O. generator. The machine had to be dismantled in 1959
. for an invention to kill all bacteria in a packaged
Wust when a new food law prohibited the treatment of food
food by treatment with X-rays. None of these proposals with ionizing radiation, and the company turned to
led to a practical application, simply because the fumigation with ethylene oxide instead. In Canada,
radiation sources available at that time, X-ray machines irradiation of potatoes for inhibition of sprouting was
or radioactive isotopes, were not powerful enough to allowed in 1960, and a cobalt-60 plant began irradiating
treat food in commercial quantities. potatoes in 1965. The facility was closed after only one
season, when the company ran into nancial difculties.
*Fax: +49-721-453-726. In spite of these setbacks, interest in food irradiation
E-mail address: j.f.diehl@t-online.de (J.F. Diehl). grew worldwide. At the rst International Symposium

0969-806X/02/$ - see front matter r 2002 Published by Elsevier Science Ltd.


PII: S 0 9 6 9 - 8 0 6 X ( 0 1 ) 0 0 6 2 2 - 3
212 J.F. Diehl / Radiation Physics and Chemistry 63 (2002) 211215

on Food Irradiation, representatives from 28 countries Organization encourages the use of the process, which
reviewed the progress made in national research it described as a technique for preserving and improv-
programs (IAEA, 1966). Health authorities in these ing the safety of food (WHO/FAO, 1988). WHO asked
countries, however, still hesitated to grant permissions another group of experts to review and evaluate the
for marketing irradiated food. Unanswered questions results of scientic studies carried out after 1980,
about the safety of irradiated food for human consump- together with the older studies which had already been
tion were recognized as the major obstacle to commer- considered by previous international and national expert
cial utilization of the new process. Consequently, the committees. The report of this expert group (WHO,
International Project in the Field of Food Irradiation 1994) fully conrmed the conclusions of the JECFI
(IFIP) was created in 1970. The Project had the specic meeting of 1980.
aim of carrying out a worldwide research program on In 1997, an FAO/IAEA/WHO Study Group on High
the health safety of irradiated food. Under the sponsor- Dose Irradiation examined the results of safety studies
ship of FAO, IAEA and OECD, 19 countries joined carried out on food irradiated with doses higher than
their resources, with this number later growing to 24. 10 kGy. Few foods tolerate doses above 10 kGy without
Ofce and laboratory facilities for the project director loss of sensory quality. On the other hand, long-term
and his staff were provided at the Federal Research animal feeding studies with foods irradiated with doses
Center for Nutrition in Karlsruhe, and IFIP was often as high as 70 kGy have shown no treatment-related
designated as the Karlsruhe Project. WHO became adverse health effects. The Study Group concluded that
associated with IFIP as an advisor. The research food irradiated to any dose appropriate to achieve the
program included long-term animal feeding studies, intended technological objective is both safe to consume
short-term screening tests, and the study of chemical and nutritionally adequate (WHO, 1999).
changes in foodstuffs irradiated with a dose of up to Public opinion about food irradiation was generally
10 kGy (Diehl, 1995). positive during the growth period of nuclear technology
The results obtained in the International Project and in the 1950s and 1960s. With the advance of the anti-
in national testing programs were repeatedly evaluated nuclear movement since the 1970s the climate of opinion
by the Joint FAO/IAEA/WHO Expert Committee on changed and opposition to the practical use of food
the Wholesomeness of Irradiated Food (JECFI). This irradiation grew. Much more than other modern
Committee concluded in 1980 that the irradiation of any methods of food processing, food irradiation had to
food commodity up to an overall average dose of overcome barriers created by prejudice, misleading
10 kGy presented no toxicological hazard and no special information, and highly restrictive legal and regulatory
nutritional or microbiological problems (WHO, 1981). measures.
IFIP had successfully completed its task of examining
the wholesomeness of food irradiated to a dose of up to
10 kGy and was terminated in 1982. Its results have been 2. The present
documented in more than 60 Technical Reports and in
several books, such as (Elias and Cohen, 1983). Aware of the opposition from some very vocal anti-
National governments and international agencies that irradiation activist groups and uncertain about the
had participated in IFIP felt that the international acceptance of irradiated commodities by consumers,
platform for exchange of information on food irradia- the food industry has made little practical use of
tion provided by the Project since 1970 had been very irradiation processing, although governments of 42
useful and should be maintained. As a result of these countries have approved the irradiation of various
considerations, the International Consultative Group on foods. For many years, spices and seasonings remained
Food Irradiation (ICGFI) was created in 1983; it is now the only group of products irradiated worldwide on a
supported by 45 member countries. ICGFI provides signicant scale. Irradiation of sizable quantities of
publications on the safety of irradiated food, the frozen poultry, shrimps or frog legs remained limited to
effectiveness of food irradiation, commercialization of a few countries, such as France and Belgium. Concern
the process, legislative aspects, control of irradiation about public health problems created by the presence of
facilities, and acceptance of and information on food pathogenic microorganisms in food and the recognition
irradiation. The Web page /www.iaea.org/icgS pro- of food irradiation as an effective tool to combat these
vides information on ICGFI activities and links to other problems, have recently helped to overcome the barriers.
food irradiation Web sites. The quantity of spices and dried seasonings irradiated to
On the basis of JECFIs landmark decision of 1980, improve their hygienic status has grown from about
the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted in 1983 a 8000 t in 1987 to over 80,000 t in 1998 (Diehl, 2000).
General Standard for Irradiated Foods and a Recom- According to estimates provided by the Food and
mended International Code of Practice for the Opera- Environmental Protection Section of FAO/IAEA, Vien-
tion of Radiation Facilities. The World Health na, the quantity of food processed by irradiation
J.F. Diehl / Radiation Physics and Chemistry 63 (2002) 211215 213

worldwide increased from about 200,000 t in 1997 to tropical fruits to US mainland consumers. The fruits
257,000 t in 1999. Especially the food industry in the had to be steam-heated for several hours in order to kill
United States of America is now actively pursuing the fruit ies in the interior of the fruit. This was only
possibilities of irradiating products other than spices. In possible with fruits picked green. In contrast, disinfesta-
August 1999, the Food Irradiation Coalition, an alliance tion by irradiation (IAEA, 1992) can be carried out on
of food industry trade associations, health organiza- tree-ripened fruit, enabling Hawaiian exporters to offer
tions, academic and consumer groups, has asked the US products of much higher quality. The rst commercial
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow X-ray irradiator for food irradiation started operating in
irradiation of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products July 2000 in Hilo, Hawaii. This development is also of
and fruit and vegetable products for the purpose of great interest to fruit growers and exporters in Central
eliminating illness-causing microorganisms. The Coali- and South America. The Interim Commission on
tion has the support of prominent public health experts Phytosanitary Measures of the International Plant
who have emphasized the health benets of food Protection Convention has considered irradiation as a
irradiation and have lamented the slowness in the phytosanitary measure at its session in Rome, 26 April
adoption of the new technology (Lee, 1994; Crawford 2001. Irradiation of fruit for quarantine purposes may
and Ruff, 1996; Lutter, 1999). eventually facilitate and stimulate fruit trade worldwide.
In the United States, irradiation of meat and meat In other countries, new commercial irradiators avail-
products requires prior approval not only by FDA, but able for food irradiation have been recently commis-
also by the US Department of Agricultures Food Safety sioned in Brazil, China, India, Republic of Korea,
and Inspection Service (USDA/FSIS). FDA approved Mexico, and Thailand. In Europe, some countries were
irradiation of refrigerated or frozen raw meat and meat early supporters of industrial food irradiation, particu-
products for control of foodborne pathogens in 1997, larly Netherlands and France. In contrast, German
FSISs separate approval became effective in February governments, while supporting research in this eld,
2000. The rst commercial packages of irradiated beef did everythingFunder pressure from anti-nuclear
reached the retail consumer market in May 2000. The groupsFto keep irradiated food from reaching the
frozen beef patties (hamburgers) were electron irradiated market. Greatly differing national legislations on food
at Sioux City, Iowa, by SureBeam Corporation; they irradiation were the result. One of the important tasks of
were marketed in ve states by the end of May 2000 the bodies ruling the European Union (EU) is the
(Mermelstein, 2000) and in 18 states by February 2001 harmonization of food laws in the member countries. A
(Mermelstein, 2001). The Iowa facility is capable of rst draft of a European Directive on food irradiation
processing about 100,000 t of hamburger meat per year. was proposed by the European Council in 1988. It
Another company, Ion Beam Applications, irradiates contained a positive list of nine commodities or
spices herbs and feeds in eight plants located in commodity groups for which irradiation was to be
California, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and permitted. After more then 10 yr of debate in the
Texas. European Parliament in Strasbourg and in various
A cobalt-60 source instead of an electron accelerator agencies in Brussels a new European set of rules on
is being used by Food Technology Service, Inc. (FTS), food irradiation was nally adopted and published in
Mulberry, Florida, the rst irradiation company in the the EUs Ofcial Gazette on 13th March 1999. In the
United States dedicated specically to the food industry, course of the legislative process the positive list of
to process frozen poultry and a number of other permitted commodities has been whittled down from the
products. The plant began operation in 1994, then original nine to a single group: dried aromatic herbs,
under the name of Vindicator, Inc. Since August 2000, spices and vegetable seasonings. Any food irradiated as
FTS is also irradiating frozen beef patties and fresh such or containing irradiated food ingredients has to be
ground beef. Sterris Isomedix, also using cobalt-60 labelled irradiated or treated with ionizing radia-
sources, has three irradiation plants in New Jersey and tion, regardless of how small the proportion of
Illinois. Other commercial irradiators dedicated to food irradiated ingredients in the product may be. This is
irradiation are under construction in the USA (Arkan- bound to cause technical difculties. Spices are often
sas, New Jersey, New York), and several more are being purchased as mixtures, and components may sometimes
planned. be irradiated, and sometimes not. The cost of changing
Another promising application of radiation proces- labels accordingly, would be high. The present positive
sing is irradiation of papayas and other exotic fruits list is considered as provisional, and EU member
(rambutan, lychee, star fruit, atemoya) in Hawaii for countries that have national permissions for irradiation
shipment to the US mainland. Until recently, quarantine of other products, such as France for frozen poultry
regulations to prevent the spreading of fruit ies from meat, and Belgium, France, and the Netherlands for
Hawaii to orchards in California have severely restricted frozen shrimps, can request to get these items added to
the export of tree-ripened Hawaiian papaya and other the nal positive list. But this will not be easily achieved.
214 J.F. Diehl / Radiation Physics and Chemistry 63 (2002) 211215

Any addition to the list requires approval by the policy of delay and obstruction that has prevailed during
European Parliament. The way in which food irradia- the 1980s and 1990s is likely to continue. Some countries
tion was systematically downgraded and misrepresented in other continents take positions close to that of the
in the European Parliament has been documented (Diehl United States, some others are as reluctant as the
et al., 1991). There is as yet no indication that the European Union.
inuence of anti-irradiation forces in that Parliament To what extent will new international activities
has decreased. Under these circumstances, the status of inuence progress in this eld? The International
food irradiation in the EU is not very encouraging. Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, which has supported
Space does not permit consideration of the situation in research and development in this eld for many decades,
the many other countries where food irradiation is is subject to budget restrictions. Its Food Preservation
practiced to some extent. An overview of recent Section has recently been merged with the Agrochem-
developments in the application of this technology has icals Section to form a new Food and Environmental
just become available (Loaharanu and Thomas, 2001). Protection Section, with less budget and less staff
available for food irradiation activities. The mandate
of the International Consultative Group on Food
3. The future Irradiation (ICGFI) was recently extended for 3 yr,
until May 2002. Representatives of some member
What is the outlook for research in the eld of food countries have expressed the opinion that food irradia-
irradiation? Research programs in the 1990s emphasized tion is now an established industrial technology that can
improvement of methods of detection of irradiated stand on its own feet. The future of ICGFI is therefore
foods. Whereas some twenty years ago it was not somewhat uncertain. A positive sign on the international
possible on the basis of chemical analysis to differentiate scene is the revision of the General Standard for
between irradiated and nonirradiated samples of a Irradiated Foods and the Recommended International
foodstuff, a number of reliable analytical methods are Code of Practice for Radiation Processing initiated by
now available (Delinc!ee, 1998). Another big push in this the Codex Alimentarius Commission. At its 33rd session
area is unlikely. Of course there will always be research in March 2001, the Codex Committee on Food
on irradiated food, just as on cooked or dried or frozen Additives and Contaminants has moved the revision of
food. There will be more studies on the radiation the General Standard to Step 5 of the Codex procedure.
resistance of various species of microorganisms and on Recognizing the recommendations of international
factors that inuence it; on chemical reactions induced groups of experts that have become available since the
by irradiation in different media; on losses of this or that present General Standard was adopted in 1983, this
vitamin under varying conditions of irradiation and revision of the General Standard removes the 10 kGy
storage; on combination methods (radiation plus heat, upper dose limit. The complex procedure of adopting or
water activity, pH, packaging atmosphere, etc.); on the revising a Codex Standard or Code will take some more
suitability of various packaging materials for irradiated time to reach the nal Step 11, but when the revised
foods; on the effect of irradiation conditions on the Standard and Code are accepted by the member
sensory quality of foodstuffs; on the minimal radiation countries of the Codex Alimentarius, national legislation
dose required to sterilize, inactivate or kill specic to facilitate international trade with irradiated commod-
insects, parasitic helminths or protozoa, and so on. But ities can be expected to follow.
a resumption of the concerted efforts that stimulated so In many ways the situation of irradiated food is
much research in this eld in the 1960s to 1980s is similar to that of food produced with the aid of
unlikely. The fact that the last International Symposium genetically modied organismsFgenefood for the
on Food Irradiation was held in 1985 (IAEA, 1985) may opponents. In both cases the potential benets for the
be taken as an indication of a decreasing importance consumer and the food industry are great, but in both
assigned to research in this eld. cases a formidable opposition is determined to prevent
To what extent will food irradiation be practiced? All or at least delay the practical application of the new
indications are that radiation processing of food will technologies. Nevertheless, food irradiations time has
grow, but the pace will be very different in various parts come in the USA and in some other countriesFand will
of the world. In the United States, where the health come in other parts of the world.
authorities actively encourage the use of this technology,
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