Industrialised countries increasingly face the problem of providing their populations with safe food. As the tip of the iceberg, Escherichia coli type O157:H7 (EHEC) has become a major threat to the US food industry. The arrival of 'electronically pasteurised hamburgers' on the US market, i.e. treated with high-energy electrons as ionising radiation and their acceptance by the consumer mark a new era; the change in the public opinion occurred when consumers realised the deadly risk of foodborne pathogen microorganisms. It would be too simple an argument to state that only the diversion of the US food industry from natural production to industrial mass production is the cause of this new challenge. The increase in world population and the concentration of population in centres of economic activity and wealth is unavoidable, and there is no way to return to the days of our ancestors. Even under strict hygienic control and at the best level of Good Manufacturing Practices there always remains a residual hazard. Radiation processing of food can help ease this problem, to improve hygienic quality of the food available, to save human lives, to save costs to the society and its social system and to contribute to the wellbeing of everyone. Ionising radiation is one tool among many; it has specific limitations and advantages but is superior to traditional means in its hygienic applications.
Less industrialised and developing countries in particular face the problem to secure the food supply; the growing population can 'eat up' any increase in food production and 20 to 40 % (estimation by FAO) of the harvest can be lost during distribution and storage. Ionising radiation is a tool here but must be combined with substantial improvement of the logistics of the food production and distribution system. The usual improvement of Good Agricultural Practices and Good Manufacturing Practices alone cannot alleviate the problem.
Furthermore, the application of ionising radiation can replace traditional chemical treatments that are becoming more and more suspect. Fumigants which were an upholder of agricultural production are likely to become unavailable in the near future; several developed countries have banned their use because of the toxicity to workers of some and of the ozone-depleting properties of others (as detailed in the Montreal Agreement). Most advanced countries have even banned the imports of raw materials produced using such chemicals and their long-term availability is questionable because production is already dramatically reduced. Because developing countries achieve a considerable part of their gross net income from exports of food and agricultural raw materials this development is a threat to their economies. Insect infestation is a major cause of such loss of food exports, followed by spoilage through moulds, yeasts and other bacteria. Once the harvest is stored in insect-tight silos and transported in insect-tight sacks, re-infestation can be avoided and the contents are preserved for human consumption, the insects can be prevented from proliferation by irradiation. When the storage of grain, cocoa and coffee beans is under controlled humidity conditions, the outgrowth of pathogen bacteria is retarded and the formation of myco-toxins excluded.
Consequently, food irradiation is a tool that supplements traditional methods of food preservation; it has already found its niche application. The total volume of goods treated is still small, estimated at about 200 000 tonne per annum, one half of which is spices and dry seasonings. Official statistics are unavailable for other methods such as canning, cooling and freezing. As the development in the US clearly demonstrates, the industrial implementation of radiation processing and its acceptance by the consumer come at the time when awareness for such needs has been established and the product is clearly labelled. This means that a slow but steady growth of the amount of irradiated food is to be expected.
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