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The Bottom Line

Economics will play a large role in determining which of these approaches, if any, will ever be widely used in food processing. As commodities go, food is cheap, so even slight increases in processing costs can have a big impact on what consumers pay for certain items. Thus, says Stevens, radiation processing can’t cost more than a few cents a pound, a figure that in-house irradiators could soon meet.

But the biggest unknown, of course, is whether consumers will buy irradiated food, even if producers can provide it at an affordable price. A series of surveys from the University of California at Davis, the University of Georgia, and Indiana University suggest the public is ready. “When you ask people if they would ever buy irradiated food, 50 to 60 percent say they would,” says UC Davis’s Bruhn. “When you mention that irradiation can keep food fresh longer and kill bacteria, the percentage rises to 80.”

In-store tests and actual sales from a few independent grocery and produce stores offer real-world evidence that consumers might follow through on what they say. For example, Olson and his colleagues at Iowa State University sold irradiated chicken at a grocery store in Manhattan, Kans. Radiation-treated chicken-clearly labeled with a green symbol called a radura that must legally appear on all irradiated food-was displayed next to the traditionally processed store brand. Whichever one was cheaper sold better. Sales split down the middle when both carried the same price tag. Even when the irradiated chicken cost almost 25 cents a pound more, it still accounted for 20 percent of sales, says Olson.

Carrot Top, a produce store in north-suburban Chicago, also has had success selling irradiated food. Owner Jim Corrigan first introduced irradiated strawberries in 1992 with a two-for-one sale, expecting his customers to buy a box of irradiated strawberries and one of nonirradiated strawberries for comparison. Instead, the berries treated with radiation, which killed the molds normally growing on the fruit, outsold untreated berries ten-to-one because they looked better and lasted far longer. Carrot Top has since expanded its irradiated line to include Vidalia onions, blueberries, chicken, exotic Hawaiian fruits, and any other irradiated foods that are available. “I would carry irradiated hamburger today if it were available, since my customers ask me for it,” says Corrigan.

Building Incentives

None of the country’s major food companies will publicly acknowledge even a remote interest in food irradiation, yet several developments could push the food industry to adopt irradiation. First, some “traditional” methods for ridding food of pests are under close scrutiny. Methyl bromide, used to fumigate cereal grains, dried fruits and nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables is scheduled to be banned in the United States as of January 1, 2001. Not only is it toxic to workers-the Environmental Protection Agency classifies it as a Category I acute toxin, the most deadly kind-it also is 50 times more destructive to the ozone layer than chlorine atoms from chlorofluorocarbons. Radiation could offer a reasonable alternative.

Ionizing radiation can also replace ethylene oxide, another widely used toxic fumigant. Radiation kills bacteria and insects more efficiently than the ethylene oxide, says Thomas Mates, general manager of SteriGenics, a California company that owns and operates several medical irradiators. What’s more, irradiation doesn’t leave behind any residue, and doesn’t require any moisture, which can remove some of the volatile chemicals that give spices their smell and taste. SteriGenics recently introduced a line of radiation-treated spices called Purely by Choice.

The changing nature of our food supply may also spur wider use of irradiation. Once upon a time Americans got their food from local growers and neighborhood markets. Today much of our food comes from afar-from across the country and, increasingly, from developing countries. Few of us would eat fruits and vegetables in many of these countries without washing and peeling them. Yet when they are imported and sold in a U.S. store, that concern seems to disappear. “One does not need to leave home to contract traveler’s diarrhea caused by an exotic agent,” according to a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine by Michael Osterholm, head of the Minnesota Department of Health. Food irradiation, he contends, “provides the greatest likelihood of substantially reducing bacterial and parasitic causes of food-borne disease associated with numerous foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables.”

Irradiation may get a huge political boost, not to mention funding for further research and development, from the Clinton Administration’s food-safety initiative, which is just beginning to wend its way through Congress. Whatever the outcome of the plan, however, the most powerful stimulus for wider use of irradiation is likely to be the ever-larger settlements awarded to people who become sick from eating contaminated food.

A generation ago, individuals felt responsible for the safety of their own food, says Christine Bruhn from UC Davis. Now people blame food growers, processors, and food sellers when they get sick from eating contaminated food, she says. This shift, already seen in million-dollar settlements such as those against Holiday Inn at San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and Foodmaster, the parent company of Jack-in-the-Box, is making restaurant owners and grocers take extra steps to make sure the food they deliver or sell is as safe as it can be.

Even though consumers seem willing to buy irradiated food, “it will probably take some truly traumatic E. coli outbreak that causes a number of deaths before government and the food industry get serious about food irradiation,” says James Tillotson of Tufts. Without such a crisis, consumers probably wouldn’t think of demanding irradiated food and there would be little political push to require leaving companies that explore irradiation open to attack by activist groups such as Food and Water. “No one is willing to get that kind of attention,” he says, “even when they might be doing the best thing for consumers.”

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