Exactly two years ago, just-food.com said that the day could well come when consumers would welcome irradiation as a valuable protection against foodborne threats. Has this day arrived? Bernice Hurst finds out.

Irradiation is one food issue where consumer demand, or the lack of it, has indisputably been setting the pace. Over the past few years, the general public has been largely oblivious to it unless asked. When asked, the word immediately arouses concern; willingness to try it has been extremely low. As a result, most retailers have rejected irradiated foods, not wanting to be seen as purveyors of something perceived to be dangerous. Governments, too, especially in Europe, have been cautious primarily in response to consumer and retail reaction.

Awareness and choice will forever be the key to this issue. While a rapidly growing number of American supermarkets are now stocking irradiated meat, The Ledger, in Lakeland, Florida says that one, at least, has confessed that sales are not going well. Further north, Wegmans Food Markets have found a favourable response, exceeding projected targets, from customers grateful for having a choice.

Two steps have been taken by manufacturers (and some governments) to change this largely lukewarm reception. The first is education, spelling out the benefits, particularly those relating to food safety and pointing to the scientists and international agencies approving the process.

The same process by a different name…

The other bypasses such openness. In the United States, a proposed name change would describe the process used as “cold pasteurisation”. Investigations into the accuracy of this terminology are still underway but if it is accepted, replacing the concept of radioactive treatment with the every day commonality of pasteurising is intended to eradicate consumer fears and suspicions. If accepted, the description “pasteurised” would replace the current wording, “treated by irradiation” and negate the requirement for the radura symbol.

Fear, on the other hand, is one of the reasons why irradiated food is becoming more widely available, and acceptable, in the US particularly. A combination of high profile food scares and meat recalls, particularly related to outbreaks of e-coli, have brought about increased demands for food safety. Publicity about possible bioterrorist attacks and anthrax have also fuelled concerns. Higher costs are no longer considered a deterrent; people are willing to pay more if they believe their safety will be ensured.

There are still many who say irradiation isn’t necessary, doesn’t guarantee safety and can, in some instances, create as many problems as it may solve. It can also be seen as a shortcut to food hygiene, eliminating standard practices. For every argument there is a counter argument. There is some debate about the factuality of the “facts”, with each side putting forward arguments, evidence and answers to opponents’ arguments and evidence.

Transparency is vital, although it may not engender acceptance

Attitudes about freshness, shelf life and accountability vary widely as do demands for information and choice. If the process is ever to be commercially successful, something will have to give in the argument about labelling at the very least. Clearly and openly displaying the information that customers need may be the only acceptable compromise. Whether it will actually lead to widespread acceptance is a separate issue.

In the US, only whole foods that have been irradiated need be labelled. “Foods containing irradiated ingredients, but which are not themselves irradiated, need not bear a label”, says the Center for Consumer Research.

The highly informative CCR website (ccr.ucdeavis.edu) repeatedly emphasises its disclaimer. “Food irradiation is not a cure-all for food problems. Proper handling and storage by the consumer are still important.”

The American CCR and the British Food Commission (foodcomm.org.uk) have opposing views. Each has a set of answers and counter arguments to all points but offer examples of the gulf that has yet to be breached.

Is irradiated food safer? Do people have confidence in it?

Whether irradiation is, in fact, safer or safe enough is still debatable. While having scientists and government agencies, not to mention manufacturers of the technology, giving irradiated food a stamp of approval is good enough for many, this can be anything but reassuring to others who have lost confidence in what they are told by “official” sources.

In the US, a lateral approach is being attempted by using irradiated meat in foodservice outlets, including schools. At the end of 2002, Congress insisted that the United States Drug Administration (USDA) lift the ban on irradiated meat in its school lunch programme.

Parents’ protests dismissed

Parents’ protests have been dismissed by lobbyists on the basis that they were either sent by, or incited by, a particular consumer organisation and were not representative.

CNN.com reports that the Agriculture Department has set 11 April as a deadline for consumer advocates and industry groups to submit comments on how to introduce irradiated meat into the national school lunch programme. Once the Agriculture Department purchases the meat, however, it is up to individual school districts to decide whether or not to use it.

Wisely, the USDA is funding pilot projects before going full throttle. In Minnesota, the three school districts considering using meat supplied by the federal government have decided to pre-empt objections with a series of consumer awareness projects. Those with reservations are pre-empting the projects, however, by pointing out that information supplied is based on studies funded by the federal government which will be supplying the meat.

Growth in irradiated food anticipated

In Florida, The Ledger says that local company Food Technology Service is nearly doubling the amount of radioactive cobalt it stocks because of anticipated growth in the foodservice industry for food to “restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals and other institutions”. Similarly, Performance Food Group (PFG) announced in February 2003 that it will be using technology from Surebeam Ltd, the most prolific provider in the US, to become the first foodservice distributor to private label irradiated ground beef products.

As there is no requirement for foodservice facilities to label or advise customers, their potential objections to irradiation can easily be ignored. Dairy Queen, the largest restaurant chain to have publicly acknowledged its use of irradiated meat, has chosen to inform customers but others are not obliged to follow its lead. Barry Sackin, lobbyist for the foodservice association, assured Marian Burros of the New York Times that when it is used by schools, it will be labelled. But the provision of information is up to individual outlets and purely optional.

In April 2001, just-food.com contributor Pam Ahlberg concluded her evaluation of the prospects for the use of irradiation by saying “perhaps consumers, bombarded with news of more and greater foodborne threats, will some day welcome and pay more for any and all food safety offerings, including irradiation. But that day has yet to come.” Since then, there has been increased reporting of such threats, although not necessarily an increase in their incidence. And while public resistance may be diminishing, albeit reluctantly, it doesn’t look as if the day of welcome has arrived yet.