Food irradiation advocates remain slightly confused and extremely cautious about whether Americans will actually eat, let alone purchase, fruit and vegetables that have been exposed to gamma rays.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the controversial technology for use on produce in April after having previously given the regulatory green light for treatment of wheat, spices and pork.
The focus now shifts from the FDA's review to the commercial future of irradiation----which some consider a miracle process that can extend shelf life, retard decay and destroy insects in a variety of foods. A few analysts theorize that the process may even be capable of expanding the world's food supply by reducing natural spoilage.
Yet, the government blessing has produced few, if any, announced plans by companies to begin treating foods with isotopes from cobalt-60 or cesium-137.
This hesitancy was particularly evident at a recent conference sponsored by the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Assn. at the Newport Beach Marriott hotel. The gathering, entitled "Food Irradiation for the Produce Industry," drew about 100 food-company executives, government officials and university researchers from around the nation.
Effects of Gamma Rays
Although the effects of gamma rays on food have been studied since the 1920s, the subject has remained mostly on the fringes of food science. Today, the handful of irradiation facilities in the country are used primarily to sterilize medical instruments and supplies.
A small amount of work is being done on food. Spices, for instance, are often irradiated because many contain high levels of bacteria and/or insects. Also, food used in the U.S. space program undergoes gamma ray exposure to ensure it is germ free.
Nevertheless, the uncertainty surrounding the commercial viability of irradiation persists, and as one federal official said, "No company is rushing to be the first one to introduce irradiated foods."
"There's conflicting data out there and some (20-year-old) old research is being discussed here (at the conference)," said George G. Giddings, Ph.D., food irradiation director for Isomedix Inc., of Whippany, N.J., after one of the scheduled seminars. "What's needed is a real consumer test, not all this talk."
Giddings then said his company is likely to be the first manufacturer to actually bring food properly labeled as being irradiated to supermarket shelves sometime later this year. Isomedix intends to import mangoes from the Caribbean that have undergone gamma ray exposure and test market them in the New York-New Jersey metropolitan area.
Unlikely Until 1988
Even so, Giddings said that most of America is unlikely to see any kind of irradiated food until 1988 at the earliest. He was also hesitant to predict irradiation would be to the food industry in the 1990s what sterilized canning was a century ago.
"Maybe food irradiation will never be applicable on a large scale," he said. "Or it may be limited to very spotty use. Right now, this field is undergoing a gradual, evolutionary, niche-finding excercise."
What shapes up as the lag time between the recent approval and the actual availability of irradiated foods gives manufacturers an opportunity to develop marketing strategies designed to make the process palatable to consumers.
Public opinion surveys conducted on irradiation are also encouraging. A UC Davis team found that only 10% of those queried are irreversibly opposed to the process. An additional 25% to 30% are willing to accept it, and more than 50% have never even heard of the technique.
In a luncheon address, Edd Buckley of Associated Marketing in Chicago, said that any firm using the technology will have to be straightforward with the public.
"The days of trying to hoodwink consumers are over," Buckley said. "Just give people the facts and that would mean a label that stated, 'Irradiated to prevent spoilage.' "
Warning Against Complacency
Buckley attempted to dissuade some executives from trumpeting irradiation as the perfect substitute for chemical fumigants and preservatives, many of which have come under scrutiny as cancer agents. He also warned the food industry about becoming complacent regarding acceptance in the marketplace.
"There are adversaries out there waiting to pounce on the process and we should be prepared to respond. These are the kind of people who say that '(irradiation) involves using nuclear reactors to make parsnips last forever.' "
In actuality, food that has been exposed to gamma rays does not become radioactive, nor is it processed in power plants. An analogy frequently used is that the procedure is much like exposure to a light bulb in that there is no illumination or residue after a lamp is turned off.
Furthermore, special facilities are required that use a different type of radioactive material than that found in nuclear power plants.