Editorial: A shot in the arm for food irradiation

Published in The Hindu on April 3, 2006

Though India is the largest producer of mangoes in the world, export to the United States was not possible for many years because of stringent import regulations designed to prevent the entry of products carrying potential pests and diseases.  The 17-year deadlock over the issue has now been satisfactorily resolved with the two governments agreeing on the use of irradiation before export to rid mangoes from India of pests and to delay their ripening by 10-14 days. Irradiating food has been well researched for nearly half a century and its safety, contrary to concerns expressed in some quarters, has been established. The fact that several organisations including the World Health Organisation, International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have endorsed the safety of irradiated food should remove any reservations in this regard. Irradiating food is done mainly to eliminate or reduce harmful bacteria and insects that cause spoilage, and to increase shelf life by delaying ripening or inhibiting sprouting in the case of fruits and vegetables. Irradiation however does not obviate the need for proper food handling practices.  India is one of the 40-odd countries where food irradiation has been allowed.  The recent agreement with the U.S. will be a shot in the arm for the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) that is popularising the technology as also for Indian farmers. While irradiation for sterilising medical products has in use for more than 30 years in India, its application for certain food items was first approved in 1994.  Apart from two demonstration facilities run by the DAE, there are now six private facilities for irradiating medical and food products.

Despite its advantages, irradiation has not gained widespread acceptance because of unfounded apprehensions. That food products become radioactive after irradiation is one such misconception.  It has been well documented that unlike neutrons that can induce nuclear changes, irradiating food with gamma rays using cobalt-60 or cesium-137 does not induce radioactivity nor will electron energy up to 10 MeV.   Though radiolytic products such as formaldehyde can be produced when food is irradiated, they are not produced at doses used for preventing sprouting or delaying ripening or killing pests. “Virtually all of the radiolysis products found in high-dose irradiated foods to date are either naturally present in foods or produced in thermally processed foods,” noted WHO in one of its reports.  While some vitamins are prone to be affected by irradiation depending on the dosage, macronutrients such as proteins, fats and carbohydrates are not significantly altered in terms of nutrient value.  “From a nutritional viewpoint, irradiated foods are substantially equivalent or superior to thermally sterilised foods…,” the WHO report stated.  That American astronauts have eaten irradiated food since 1972 and immuno-compromised patients in some countries such as Netherlands and United Kingdom are given irradiated food testifies to its safety.

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