Food Irradiation isn't Star Wars

Food safety and food security are top of mind for everyone in the foodservice industry. Food-borne diseases are not uncommon and are especially dangerous to children, pregnant women, the elderly, and the segment of the population that is immuno-compromised.

One of the technologies that is being adopted to heighten food safety is commonly referred to as irradiation. Though the mention of irradiation can cause concern or even fear in the minds of consumers, the technology that is used to cleanse food of harmful pathogens is safe and potentially beneficial to everyone involved in distributing foodservice products from the field to the operators' tables.

The possibility of contracting a severe illness due to food-borne pathogens is real. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, bacteria in food cause more than 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths annually. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that food borne illness costs the U.S. economy $6.9 billion each year. The CDC estimates that if irradiated foods were more widely consumed in the U.S., nearly 900,000 cases of food borne illness and more than 350 deaths each year could be prevented. Offering restaurant patrons food has undergone irradiation gives meat processors, distributors and operators peace of mind that their food is safe and wholesome.

Electron beam technology, as the process used by SureBeam Corp., San Diego, is called, uses energy from ordinary electricity to eliminate harmful food-borne bacteria, such as E. Coli, Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter, thereby making food safer and extending product freshness. In addition, this technology is environmentally friendly.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have verified the safety of the electron beam technology process. Supported by more than 500 studies and 40 years of research, this process has been researched more thoroughly than canning, freezing, or microwaving and is approved in more than 42 countries. Currently, USDA approved electron beam technology processed fresh and frozen ground beef products are sold nationally in thousands of supermarkets (as well as similarly processed fruit), and are becoming available in a growing number of restaurants.

Additionally, the World Health Organization, American Dietetic Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association, Food Distributors International, National Consumer League, National Restaurant Association, among others have endorsed, supported, or approved the process.

While all ionizing energy - whether it comes from electricity, ultraviolet light, x-rays, or nuclear power - is considered to be irradiation, the process does not use any radioactive materials whatsoever, as older technologies do. The electron beam device is a machine that can be turned on and off.

Contrary to some claims, the process does not make food radioactive. The electron beam process is a form of radiant energy that uses electricity, the same kind used in a microwave oven or a television. There are no radioactive materials used and there is no radioactive residue. Furthermore, electron beam technology is ecologically safe and it eliminates the need to use dangerous post-harvest fruit and vegetable fumigants and chemicals, while stopping the spread of environmental pests.

Electron beam technology produces virtually no heat within food and does not "cook" foods. Foods processed with electron beam technology are just as nutritious and flavorful as most other foods in the marketplace. There is no discoloration or taste deviations in the finished product and very little vitamin content is lost in processing - far less than is lost in canning, cooking, freezing or microwaving.

According to recent surveys, acknowledging the use of electron beam technology can be a business builder for operators. In a customer survey fielded by a national quick-service chain, 27 percent of patrons said that they would increase their visits when electron beam processed burgers are served, and 69 percent said their frequenting would stay the same. In the same survey, half of consumers have even said that they would be willing to pay more for burgers irradiated for food safety. Of those willing to pay more, the majority agreed to an additional charge of 5-10 cents.

Recently, the FDA announced it would begin accepting petitions to consider alternative terminology for labeling purposes, such as "electronic pasteurization" or "cold pasteurization" for irradiated food products. SureBeam says it has had excellent success with the approved "Irradiated for food safety" label. This consumer safety message is used on many foodservice and retail products, as well as POS material, with very positive consumer response. Although there are some groups who for various reasons try to scare consumers with the word irradiation, surveys show that American consumers are increasingly associating the electron beam process as a safe, effective means of achieving additional food safety.

Another high-tech process for eliminating food-borne pathogens is simply called irradiation and was developed by Food Technology Service, Mulberry FL. Dr. Richard Hunter, president and CEO, is not concerned with outrightly using irradiation on the label because "consumers are savvy enough now to know that irradiation doesn't create radioactivity."

Food Technology Service uses a gamma irradiator process that cleanses already-packed frozen and fresh chicken or beef in one to two hours, depending on its density. Gamma energy is electromagnetic radiation of very short wavelength, similar to ultraviolet (UV), visible and infrared light, microwaves and radio waves used for communication. Irradiation works by disrupting the organic processes that lead to food decay. In their interaction with water and other molecules that make up food, gamma rays, X-rays or electrons are absorbed by the molecules they contact. In the process, microbial cells, such as bacteria, yeasts and moulds are broken down, and parasites, insects or their eggs and larvae are either killed or made sterile.

Hunter says that the American Dietetic Association has certified that the loss of vitamins or other nutrients in foods that underwent this process is insignificant. In addition, the process increases the shelf time of food, from 7-10 days for fresh chicken to 28-30 days for the same irradiated product.

Referring to the success rate of the process, Hunter notes that a medium-sized restaurant chain that he declined to name has documented over time a decrease in employee and consumer reported illnesses since it began menuing irradiated chicken. Furthermore, he says, studies conducted by Kansas State University and Tufts University show that consumers accept irradiated food with the proper labeling and POS material. One quarter of them are considered willing acceptors of the product while another 50 percent would accept it with additional education.


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