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In October 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft risk assessment on the levels of contaminants in spices. The report made headlines nationwide for including the finding that 12 percent of spices imported to the U.S. were contaminated with everything from insects and rodent excrement to human hair and staples.
Another major finding was that 6.6 percent of imported spices, which make up 80 percent of spices consumed in the U.S., were contaminated with Salmonella during a three-year study from 2007 to 2009. Other pathogens found during sampling included Clostridium perfringens, Shigella and Staphylococcus aureus.
Increasingly in recent years, more spices consumed in the U.S. are undergoing irradiation treatment to eliminate risks associated with microbial contamination. The process involves exposing food to bursts of gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams, and may also be used to increase shelf life since it destroys spoilage-causing bacteria and molds.
FDA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the World Health Organization all have signed off on the safety of irradiated foods, although critics such as the Center for Food Safety say it may be abused as a tactic to cover up poor sanitation practices and can create trace amounts of cancer-causing compounds.
Irradiation hits the shelves
Irradiation as a food-safety intervention has taken a foothold among a few grocery commodities, most notably spices and imported fruits. Certain marketplaces in the U.S. also have begun offering irradiated ground beef and shellfish products.
About one-third of commercial spices in the U.S. are irradiated today, which equates to around 175 million pounds of spices a year, according to Ronald Eustice, author of the monthly newsletter Food Irradiation Update and former executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.
Some imported fruits cannot enter the U.S. without undergoing irradiation treatment to kill any potential insects from coming in as stowaways. That means papayas from Mexico, mangoes from India and dragonfruit from Vietnam may have gone under the rays before making it to the produce section of grocery markets. (Not all imported fruits are irradiated, however — only a small percentage, according to an FDA spokesman.)
At least one beef company, Omaha Steaks, uses irradiation as a selling point. The company irradiates all of its ground beef to prevent risk of pathogenic E. coli or Salmonella transmission.
Northeast regional grocery chain Wegmans Food Markets has offered irradiated ground beef as an option to customers since USDA approved the process for meats in 2000. Schwan’s Food Service also irradiates every pound of ground beef found in its food products.
More food companies may very well turn to irradiation in the future as a way to avoid costly recalls and outbreaks, Eustice said. A handful of companies are also now irradiating molluscan shellfish, most notably oysters. Irradiated oysters, however, introduce some of their own labeling problems.
Concerns with irradiation
FDA requires the labels of irradiated foods to include the Radura, the international symbol for irradiation. But shoppers may not see the Radura on some irradiated products, such as oysters or processed foods containing irradiated ingredients, said Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety.
Processed foods containing irradiated spices, for example, do not contain a Radura on the box. Restaurant patrons may also receive irradiated foods without knowing it.
Some consumers wish to avoid irradiated foods for a number of reasons, Hanson said, including concerns that the irradiation treatment is used to mask quality problems with the food.
“Why should we have people arguing that they need to irradiate ground beef because it’s likely to have E. coli in it?” Hanson said. “The first thing that you need to do is process meat in a way where you don’t have E. coli.”
Hanson added that consumers paying for fresh produce may feel misled if their fruit was irradiated to last longer before spoiling.
Center for Food Safety has also expressed concerns about potential carcinogens created in the irradiation process, such as benzene and toluene.
Eustice said that those claims have “no validity whatsoever,” likening the amount of benzene created from irradiation to the amount created when bread is turned to toast or coffee is roasted.
“If you were concerned about the chemicals they’re talking about, you’d quit drinking coffee completely,” Eustice said. “There’s no basis in fact.”
Hanson agreed that while an individual irradiated food item was not cause for concern, the cumulative effect of an irradiation-heavy diet may be.
“One thing is not going to cause tremendous problems, but if you start irradiating all the beef, all the chicken, all the seafood, the lettuce [...] you may have changes in the food that cause problems,” Hanson said.
Eustice reiterated that the safety of irradiation has long been proven. He added that he’d like to see the government become more proactive about encouraging irradiation of food.
A number of food irradiation facilities are sprouting up around the world, Eustice said, likely making irradiated food products more widely available in the future.