The history of food irradiation

As early as in 1885 and 1886 ionising radiation was discovered and in subsequent years its bactericidal effects were described. The purpose of the first patent on food irradiation (Appleby and Banks, 1905) was to bring about an improvement in food and its general keeping quality. It was followed by an invention of an 'Apparatus for preserving organic materials by the use of X-rays' (Gillett, 1918). However, radiation sources strong enough for industrial exploitation were not available before the 1950s. The following five decades were devoted to the development of this technology to a state where it could be applied both commercially and industrially as well as to an investigation into the health aspects of food treated by ionising radiation.

This was done in a world-wide, concerted effort; the US Army and the US Atomic Energy Commission were involved and stimulated by Eisenhower's initiative 'Atoms for Peace'. The academia were led by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and followed by university and government research establishments in many countries. Details are given by Diehl (1995). Radiation sources, such as radioactive isotopes and machines, became available and were strong enough for treating food at commercial throughput. A radiation processing industry developed so that everyday goods could be produced by using ionising radiation. Floor-heating pipes, automobile tyres, car parts, electrical wires and cables, shrinkable food packaging, medical disposables (syringes, implants, compresses, bandaging material, blood transfusion equipment) - all are manufactured using ionising radiation. Even astronauts prefer irradiated food in their diets.

* The WHO Golden Rules for Safe Food Preparation list under 'Rule 1 "Chose foods processed for safety":... if you have the choice, select fresh or frozen poulty treated with ionizing radiation . . .

The world-wide first food irradiation facility became operational in Germany in 1957 for spices, but had to be dismantled in 1959 when Germany banned food irradiation. In 1974 in Japan the Shapiro Potato Irradiator was commissioned and is the oldest food irradiation facility still in operation today. When in 1980 the JECFI made a landmark decision and declared irradiated foods as safe and wholesome for human consumption, it led many governments to permit the radiation processing of food. This did not result in commercial application of the process in all countries. Nevertheless, the total amount of food treated by ionising radiation is increasing, about 200000 tonne per annum at the time of writing, but is still a very small volume compared to the total amount consumed. However, food irradiation is a niche application, supplementing traditional methods of food processing and serving specific purposes.

Two important classes of application, sanitary and phytosanitary, are increasingly recognised.

As recently as 1993, children died tragically after eating undercooked ('rare') hamburgers. This was caused by Escherichia coli type O157:H7 (EHEC), an emerging pathogen microorganism which is now considered to be ubiquitous. There is always the threat of such emerging hazards in modern, industrial food production. Such risks can only be fought by further improvement of good manufacturing practices and the application of 'Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP)'. Adherence to such procedures and improvement of hygienic concepts can only reduce or limit the hazard but never eliminate it. For this reason, supplementary methods, in addition to good practices, help suppress such residual risks to a tolerable, acceptable level. Ionising radiation is such a tool, now legal in the USA and helping to make hamburgers, fresh or deep-frozen, far safer for the consumer. Many other pathogen microorganisms are a threat to society, causing death and illness, damages and economic losses. Other examples are Campylobacter and Salmonella in poultry, Salmonella in eggs, Listeria in cheese and sprouts. Governments increasingly recognise the value of radiation processing of food in fighting such threats to health and hygiene.

The threat to plant production (i.e. phytosanitary aspects) is less widely feared but many areas that are very productive in fruit and vegetables have suppressed several of the original pests. Such areas have strict quarantine controls on imports that might carry insects or pests capable of proliferation. The USA is the leading country in exploitation of ionising radiation for insect elimination: an X-ray facility for treating fruit on Hawaii is now operational and allows for the direct transport of fruit to mainland areas such as California. Also, other countries have strict quarantine regulations; they include Australia, Japan and South Africa where ionising radiation can play a valuable role. Certification systems presently under development will help facilitate international trade.

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