Groups urge update to EU irradiation rules

By Joseph James Whitworth contact

- Last updated on GMT

Dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasoning is authorised for irradiation in EU. Picture: iStock
Dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasoning is authorised for irradiation in EU. Picture: iStock
The European Commission has been urged to revise legislation related to irradiation of food and ingredients.

The International Irradiation Association was one of the groups that called for a ‘complete revision’ of the European approach to irradiation of food.

The European Directives on irradiation of food and food ingredients 1999/2/EC and 1999/3/EC came into effect in 1999.

One category authorised for irradiation

Only dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasoning is authorised for irradiation at EU level and may circulate freely within the single market. Irradiated food put on the EU market must be labelled.

Treatment can only take place in approved facilities under certain safety conditions.

National authorisations for other foodstuffs exist in seven Member States (Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Italy, Netherlands, Poland and the UK).

The fact there is only one category of irradiated foodstuffs allowed may explain the decline in the use of irradiation within the EU over the past 20 years whilst it is growing in the Americas and Asia.

The International Irradiation Association said experience outside and inside the EU has demonstrated that consumers are willing to buy irradiated food when available.

The European Directives create a barrier to international trade of irradiated food as some that can be legally irradiated in some Member States are banned in others, it added.

“The European Directives created a barrier to the trade of irradiated food within the EU and with third countries and have had a global negative effect on the expansion of a beneficial technology.

“They hamper the diffusion of innovative European technologies such as new compact and cost efficient recirculation electron beam units and the use of lamps producing low energy electron beams or X-rays that can be used to irradiate food.

“[The] mandatory mention of irradiation for very minor ingredients amounts to a warning. Paradoxically, chemical processes that leave potentially harmful residues do not have to be indicated.”

How it works

Food irradiation is the treatment of foodstuffs by a type of radiant energy known as ionising radiation. Radiant energy has differing wavelengths and degrees of power and disappears when the energy source is removed.

Irradiation is used for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes and can kill bacteria such as Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli.

All irradiated food imported from a third country must be treated in facilities approved by the EU.

Agricultural and food products irradiated represent 700,000 tons per year of which only 1% is treated in the EU.

Since 2007, on average 6,000 tons of foodstuffs are irradiated each year including frog’s legs (55%) and dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasoning (16%).

The Panel on Gamma and Electron Irradiation said the European Directives are out of date and do not reflect current approaches to international regulation of food irradiation.

“The international and national scientific consensus from organizations around the world, including the WHO, the FAO and the IAEA, is that irradiated food is safe and poses no radiological, toxicological, microbiological or nutritional hazard,” ​said the group.

“This process is not used as a substitute for hygiene and health practices or for good manufacturing or agricultural practice.”

The organisation added the directives act as barriers to trade via restrictive technological approaches, inappropriate approaches to specifying absorbed dose and inability to reflect developments in technology and science.

Demand for microbial decontamination tech

Bühler said there is a growing demand for microbial decontamination technologies as pathogenic microorganisms have become one of the main threats of plant-based food materials like spices, cereals grains and nuts.

“A screening study in co-operation with academia and other external partners revealed low-energy electron beam as one of the most promising technologies for microbial decontamination in dry food commodities.

grain cereal rice corn iStockcom
Picture: iStock

“Bühler is currently developing low-energy electron beam technology as a non-thermal decontamination solution for dry foods and results from industrial scale tests are promising.”

Low-energy electron beam has the potential to protect and preserve the quality (i.e. taste, aroma, nutritional value) and shelf life of dry foods, said the company.

“Due to the low energies of the electrons no thick shielding is needed and the technology can be implemented into in-house food processing lines, rather than running the technology in centralized bunkers with complicated logistics.

“The effect of low-energy electrons (<300keV) is based on their ionizing energies that is limited to the surface of food where microorganisms reside.”

GNT said for low moisture food technical possibilities to ensure microbial safety are limited.

“Technologies used, like dry heat or saturated steam, significantly affect product properties and the nutritional value of heat sensitive products.

“By taking into account that gamma-irradiation, low dose e-beam, UV irradiation and pulsed light all have a different mode of application, used energy intensity, penetration depth into the treated food and more over mechanism how (and where) pathogenic microorganisms and bacterial spores are inactivated, a revision and improvement of the actual framework is needed to ensure that food processors, manufacturing in the EU are competitive on the global market.”

IAEA urges use of Codex

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) said quality of final product depends on correct application of the process.

“It is imperative that the Directives 1999/2/EC and 1999/3/EC are based on the current Codex Alimentarius food standards and codes of practice as well as the phytosanitary standards of the International Plant Protection Convention.

“The key technical issue is to ensure that the irradiation facility delivers doses above the appropriate minimum dose for the particular purpose. Too high a dose could affect product quality – and the maximum limits found in most legislation is where dose may start to negatively affect food quality in some way (rather than safety).”

The Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) said irradiation is a safe and useful technique to enhance food safety.

“Its current use in the EU is limited, and whereas consumer acceptance is likely to be a factor in the limited uptake of the technology, current legislation may also be playing a part. The Commission would also do well to examine evidence of the uptake of the technique in third countries and gather evidence from their experiences with food irradiation.”

The ETH Zurich Sustainable Food Processing Lab said techniques such as pulsed light, pulsed or constant UV, low energy electron beam, high energy Ebeam or Cobald 60 based systems need to be better distinguished based on scientific evidence, experience during applications and expert feedback.

The European Institute for Food Law said illnesses could be lower if EU procedures did not block technologies for political reasons that have been found to be effective and safe by science including EFSA, citing bacteriophages as another example.

“The EHEC crisis could have been prevented if the surface of the seeds used for sprouting would have been treated with low energy electron beams, sufficiently gentle not to affect their germination,” ​said the Netherlands-based foundation.

The Institute of Nuclear Chemistry and Technology in Warsaw said regulations around labeling of products containing ingredients treated with ionizing radiation, such as spices, are too restrictive.

“In our opinion the beneficial solution for the future is to extend the existing list of foodstuffs authorized for irradiation treatment by adding the categories of foodstuffs compiled in EU positive list and those included presently in national lists of seven countries.”

Related topics: Regulation and safety, Bakery, Shelf life

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