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'Chicken and egg' dilemma stunts food irradiation takes up

By Rory Harrington , 03-Feb-2012

Use of irradiation among European food processors remains relatively scarce with less than 10,000 tonnes (t) of produce treated across the region in 2010, a new report from Brussels has revealed.

Low consumer acceptance of the technology coupled with poor communication by the food industry on its potential benefits are key reasons for its slow adoption, said independent consultant Lindsey Bagley.

The sector is trapped in a ‘chicken and egg’ situation, with present irradiation players unable to afford the financial burden of a consumer information campaign that could spur the acceptance to fuel greater take up of the technology and allow them to grow, said the food industry expert.

EU irradiation figures

The analysis from the European Commission shows just 9,263t of food were irradiated at the 24 approved facilities in 13 countries across the bloc, with three countries and three products accounting for the vast majority of this.

Almost 89% of food irradiation took place in Belgium (63%), the Netherlands (17%) and France (11%).

The three biggest foodstuffs within the irradiated categories are frog legs (48%), poultry (22%) and herbs and spices (16%).

There is one approved facility in Belgium and this treated over 5,800 t of food.

Frog legs accounted for almost half this amount (3572t), while 1,481t of poultry were irradiated. Herbs and spices accounted for 285t and dehydrated blood 178t.

France’s five irradiation plants processed 1023t – with poultry (463t) and frogs legs (473t) accounting for almost all of this. Only four plants were in operation in the 12-month period.

The two sites in the Netherlands treated 1,539t. Of this total, 481t were dehydrated vegetables, 365t frog parts and 329t herbs and spices. Poultry meat accounted for 137t and egg whites 160t.

Chicken and egg

While the technology is recognised as both an effective and non-hazardous tool in the food safety arsenal, consumers remain sceptical – mainly through a lack of information, said Bagley.

Irradiation of foods in the EU must be carried out under Directive 1999/2/EC by one of three methods: gamma rays from radionuclides 60Co or 137Cs; X-rays generated from machine sources operated at or below a nominal energy (maximum quantum energy) level of 5 MeV or electrons generated from machine sources operated at or below a nominal energy (maximum quantum energy) level of 10 MeV.

“There has been little take up because many consumers think that irradiated food has been exposed to harmful radiation which is just not true,” she said.

Another major obstacle is that any foodstuff containing one or more irradiated food ingredient must be labelled with the words ‘irradiated’ or ‘treated with ionising radiation’ – which immediately puts consumers off, Bagley added.

Effective communication on the benefits of the technology is essential but industry players are put off by the cost of such a campaign, she said.

“There is no industry trade body for the sector that could pool the costs for an education campaign,” she said. “If one company did carry this out at considerable expense, then all the others who hadn’t spent anything would benefit too. So nobody is prepared to do it.”

Companies involved in the sector are still comparatively small, putting the cost for the campaign out of their reach.

“It’s a chicken and egg situation,” said Bagley. “Because there has been limited take up, companies remain relatively small and therefore can’t afford to do it. But until communication takes place on the benefits then the companies won’t grow sufficiently to be able to bear the financial costs.”