Whatever happened to irradiation?
We haven’t heard quite as much about ionizing radiation lately as we once did. There was quite a spate of publicity about it a few years back when a commercial operation endeavored to irradiate meat products, particularly ground beef, to destroy pathogens. That might have paved the way to the return of rare hamburgers. However, instructions on packaging couldn’t be changed to recommend rare cooking, so much of the benefit of the process was lost to consumers. The commercial operation ultimately failed.
Some publicity about irradiation has been creeping back lately, which may assuage consumers’ fears engendered by unfavorable publicity about produce that dominated the news a few months ago. Last month, a minor news article appeared in the New York Times specifying that tropical fruit from Thailand, including the rare mangosteen, will be permitted into this country by the U.S. Department of Agriculture later this year, providing it’s irradiated to kill or sterilize pests commonly found on the fruit.
Irradiation of certain products provides unmistakable benefits, but at present it’s difficult or impossible to convey use benefits on product labels, forcing descriptions of benefits to other media. Identifying product as irradiated, without a good way to describe benefits, is likely to scare off consumers.
These issues are being ruminated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In a lengthy filing published in the Federal Register in April, FDA proposed that there need be no labeling of food that undergoes irradiation unless “irradiation causes a material change in the food, or ... [in] the use of the food.” Should material change be caused, the food must bear the radura logo and the term “irradiation” together with “explicit language describing the change in the food or its conditions of use.”
What constitutes a “material change”? The FDA explains: “Bananas may be irradiated to delay ripening and extend shelf life. ... If irradiated bananas were not labeled [as such], consumers would purchase the bananas expecting the faster ripening schedule of unirradiated bananas.”
Labeling product as irradiated is a good opener, although if all treated product were identified, that would speed the day when irradiation is styled as a positive. The product-change descriptions are much needed. Here’s the fly in the ointment: FDA would permit the use of an alternate term, in lieu of “irradiation,” if the FDA is notified and agrees to the use of an alternative term. The alternative could include “pasteurized.” Positives that could be attached to “irradiation” would be obfuscated by the use of euphemisms. At the least, use of a single term should be mandated.
The Produce Marketing Association this month issued a statement endorsing the necessity of identifying irradiated product and opposing the FDA’s idea of permitting alternative terms, which, said PMA, “may confuse the public and be perceived as misleading.”
PMA’s statement is not unlike those made by other trade associations in recent time that argue against regulators’ efforts to weaken standards. It is doubtless correct. What’s needed is to clearly inform consumers that product has been irradiated, and by means of labels and otherwise to spread the knowledge that the process is safe and beneficial, and in what ways.