The lack of irradiated food in retail channels has forced the federal government to extend its introductory labeling program for items treated with gamma rays.
All foods exposed to the process, which destroys insects, molds or bacteria, are required to state on packaging that the product was "treated with irradiation."
Originally adopted in 1986, the labeling requirement would have expired last month. However, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration extended the regulation until April, 1990.
Apart from the cautionary phrase, all treated foods must also carry the international irradiation logo: a two-leaf flower enclosed in a broken circle. There is no expiration date for use of the logo.
"The agency decided to propose extending the mandatory labeling . . . because few companies are producing irradiated food products," a report in FDA Consumer magazine stated. By extension, the logo, without any explanatory phrase, would be meaningless to most shoppers.
In the last two years, there have been only a few tests of irradiated food's commercial appeal. The first such trial was in Florida, when irradiated mangoes from Puerto Rico were successfully sold in a North Miami Beach market.
A more ambitious, consumer survey occurred in Southern California last year. Two local supermarkets carried irradiated Hawaiian papaya, but the move was met with a parking lot demonstration by opponents of the process.
Those who object to the technology believe that its implementation will lead to a proliferation of radioactive facilities and that the process itself negatively affects food's nutritional composition. Irradiation can also form compounds known as unique radiolytic products that, some claim, can be harmful if consumed over an extended period.
FDA officials, however, have repeatedly stated that the process is safe.
Building Irradiators--Although there has been little irradiated food on the market to date, this scarcity is likely to change in the next few years.
A group of Florida growers and other related business interests have combined to finance "the nation's first irradiation facility for fresh produce," according to a recent report in the Packer, a food industry trade journal.
The $6-million project, located near Lakeland, Fla., will be operational in July, 1989. The facility is the first of three the consortium plans to build for the treatment of citrus and strawberries, according to the journal.
Specifically, the process will be used to disinfest citrus and destroy mold that limits strawberries' shelf life. Florida has the only domestic crop of winter berries and with irradiation, can expand its distribution of the fruit, now limited due to perishability.
Eventually, the plants may also treat imported produce from the Caribbean, particularly if these shipments are required by U.S. customs agents to be insect-free.
At present, 37 U.S. companies use irradiators to sterilize medical instruments, the article said. Several of these are also equipped to handle food products, but few have actually done so.
Closely following the Florida project is a similar venture by the Hawaiian Papaya Growers. The group has announced its intention to construct a food irradiation plant in order to treat fruit before it is shipped to the Mainland. The group is now completing financing.
Milk's Improved Health--Virtually all dairy food categories are experiencing surprising sales and production increases, according to a report by Frost & Sullivan Inc., a market research firm.
"America's giant dairy industry (more than $36 billion in annual sales) has more product categories, sub-categories and niche-market variations than a Swiss cheese has holes. But there is nothing hollow about the sturdy market growth most dairy products have been enjoying the past few years," the New York-based company reported in a recent survey.
The data, at a time when federal officials continue to debate the wisdom of subsidies to dairy farmers, is significant. For instance, sales of low-fat and skim milk are rising "rather dramatically," according to Frost & Sullivan.
"The average annual growth rate in dollar sales of low-fat . . . is 6.5%. For skim milk, this growth rate is 6.2%," the report said. These totals are expected to increase each year into the early 1990s. The gains have come at the expense of whole milk, sales of which have suffered due, in part, to consumers' concerns about cholesterol intake. When taken together, however, the milk category is slated to total $17.3 billion in 1991, an anticipated increase of $900 million from last year.
Yogurt, on the other hand, is outperforming all other major dairy items with annual increases of about 15%. Frost & Sullivan project that yogurt sales will jump to $1.2 billion by 1991, up from last year's total of $754 million.
Even heavy creams have made gains, though slight. Last year's sales stood at $65.7 million and should rise to $69 million in the next three years. "Sales to home gourmet cooks and people giving themselves 'luxury' treats offset rebuffs from the cholesterol conscious," Frost & Sullivan said.
Other highlights include:
--Cheese, fueled by mozzarella's popularity with pizza makers, is experiencing an annual growth rate of 10.5%. The total market will represent $4 billion by 1991, up from 1987's $3 billion.
--Butter is making a comeback, thanks to increased interest in gourmet foods, more meals eaten in restaurants and butter-margarine blends. Sales were $1.72 billion in 1987, a figure estimated to increase to $1.73 billion by 1991.
--Ice cream and frozen desserts in general are increasing 5.6% annually. Sales, now in excess of $3.2 billion, are estimated to top $3.9 billion in 1991.