Consumer attitudes and government regulations

It is widely said that consumers reject food irradiation and any irradiated product on the market will be turned down. Table 17.3 lists common objections to irradiation. In most countries, however, irradiated food products are not on the market and the consumer has no decision left to buy or to abstain and so it appears that there is no consumer demand. On the other hand, the food industry is reluctant to bring irradiated products on the market or to be identified with food irradiation. There have even been advertising campaigns of consumer activists publishing names of companies who guarantee that their products are not treated by ionising radiation.

This is a vicious circle which can only be broken by strong arguments which has occurred in the US where a number of people, in particular children, died because they ate undercooked, 'raw' hamburgers. The reason is a nearly unavoidable infection of raw, minced meat by Escherichia coli, including type O157:H7 (also called EHEC). E. coli microorganisms are deadly and can spread despite tight hygienic measures; an effective safety measure is radiation processing to

Table 17.3 Some arguments against food irradiation

Argument

  • allows lax food hygiene
  • does not remove toxins
  • spores are not killed
  • causes loss of nutrients
  • freshness is apparent rather than real
  • spoilage may flourish without warning signs
  • impairs sensory quality
  • increases costs
  • harms the environment
  • endangers personnel
  • needs restructuring of the total logistics fight any residual risk. 'Red meat' irradiation has been legal in USA since 1999 and has been applied on a commercial scale since the middle of the year 2000. An increasing number of food suppliers now rely on hamburger patties for domestic use and for institutional catering which should be stamped with the words: 'irradiated for your safety - serve with confidence'.

The consumer appreciates the availability of such products and the choice between irradiated products and those which are not irradiated. The indications are that the well-informed consumer will respond favourably to the irradiated product once it becomes available to the market as well as being open-minded and ready for pertinent, trustworthy information. Scientific and sociological studies back these observations. Activists against food irradiation play guardians for an 'under-age population'.

There have been other studies on the market place, for instance on the sale of irradiated fruit from the Hawaiian islands in mainland USA where strict quarantine regulations against Mediterranean fruit fly are in place. Consumers responded favourably to such tests and now the product is on the commercial market; in Hawaii a facility dedicated to fruit irradiation has been established.

From this it can be inferred that alleged consumer resistance to irradiated food either does not exist or that it can be overcome (anon, 1998). Such resistance is created by certain opponents and is taken over by a timid food industry. In the history of food irradiation there have been many ill-founded claims, misunderstandings, half-truths, and intentional distortions. Much controversial information has been published and the discussions contain more emotion than fact. However, the professional view is that the benefits by far outweigh any potential, still unidentified, risk.

From this position of alleged consumer resistance, reinforced by the loud voices of consumer activists, politicians and governments are very cautious when it comes to regulating food irradiation. The Codex Alimentarius (1984) in its standard on food irradiation does not restrict by individual food, nor by groups or

388 The nutrition handbook for food processors Table 17.4 Legislation concerning food irradiation

European Union clearances only for 'dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings': Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Sweden

'dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings' and other specified items: Belgium, France, Italy, Netherlands, United Kingdom

Non-EU countries in Europe

Clearance: Croatia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Poland, Russian Federation, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, Former Yugoslavia

Other countries with clearances

Asia/Pacific: Australia, Bangladesh, China, China, Republic of (Taiwan), Indonesia, India, Iran, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, Republic of, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam

Africa (including Middle East): Egypt, Ghana, Israel, South Africa, Syrian Arab Republic

Latin America (Middle and South): Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay

North America: Canada, United States of America classes, most countries have preferred to regulate by this approach (Table 17.4). A very few have adopted Codex Alimentarius completely (namely Brazil, which has removed any upper dose limit, Ghana, Mexico, Pakistan, Turkey and ASEAN member states). On the other hand, the USA prefers 'permit as petitioned' and requires documentation in addition to Codex Alimentarius and WHO evidence (the US regulatory system is explained in much detail elsewhere (Looney at al, 2001)).

At present, some 53 countries have regulations on food irradiation; this varies widely and conflicts with international trade. The International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (ICGFI) holds an inventory of regulations by country and by item (http://www.iaea.org/icgfi) and provides other useful information. In some cases, the minimum or the maximum dose or both are regulated; in other cases an 'average' is regulated. Under the aspects of food irradiation technology only the upper and the lower dose limits are of interest because they are related to the effectiveness of the treatment. An average dose is of interest under rather rare circumstances: a liquid being stirred after irradiation.

The idea of 'overall average dose' originated from toxicological considerations (World Health Organization, 1981), a concept which is totally unsuitable for regulatory purposes. Regulating the average requires the food inspector to execute a certain integration over a prescribed extent of the sample. This problem has been resolved by more recent regulations in the Netherlands and in the United Kingdom: the regulated reference value is the average of the 'batch' and the minimum and the maximum dose values are strictly bound to this set value. However, the common regulation for all EU-members falls back to crude average limits. As such details vary widely and are sometimes contradictory, international trade is severely hampered. For this reason regional harmonisation efforts have been undertaken (1993/1999 Asia/Pacific; 1996 Africa; 1997 Latin America and Caribbean; 1998 near east) and are now being implemented by ASEAN-members. Imports and exports are permitted in most regulations; the mutual conditions, however, are not coordinated. In particular, the European Union requires that the irradiation facility in the exporting country must be registered with and inspected by the EU authorities.

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