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Irradiation And Consumer Acceptance

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, October 16, 2008

We have dealt a great deal with irradiation, including an extensive review of the state of the art which we entitled, Irradiation Kickstart. This piece followed up on the heels of FDA’s Irradiation Ruling Puts FDA On The Spot, which announced FDA’s approval of irradiation for use with iceberg lettuce and spinach.

Although there are many technical issues with regard to irradiation — what dose, what packaging, logistics, cost, etc. — one of the key industry concerns is consumer acceptance of irradiated produce. To explore this subject more thoroughly we asked Pundit Investigator and Special Projects Editor Mira Slott to find out more:

Christine Bruhn
Ph.D., Director, Center for Consumer Research
Department for Food Science and Technology
University of California, Davis

Q: What can you tell us about consumer acceptance of irradiated food?

A: We do research on consumer attitudes toward food safety and quality, and help to respond to consumer concerns, educate on the facts, and clear up misinformation.

Q: Have you done any studies related to fresh produce in particular?

A: Our main research on irradiation was done a couple years ago and related primarily to meat. We did have questions included about produce, related to availability of tropical fruits irradiated for disinfestation of pests rather than food safety applications. [Editor’s note: you can read the full report here]

Q: Do you think your earlier research would be applicable to consumer acceptance of irradiated spinach and iceberg lettuce, now that the focus has been shifted and elevated from pest control to combating deadly pathogens?

A: The application of irradiation for something eaten raw is a new opportunity. While the research doesn’t specifically address this, I can share my view of how people respond and would respond regarding irradiating food for food safety.

Q: What is our understanding on this issue?

A: Some are saying the public won’t buy it. That is not the case. The public hasn’t been given an opportunity. My work and that of other researchers over the last 20 years has found some people are ready to buy irradiated product right now. They want it, but complain that the grocery store hasn’t offered it to them. This group of consumers represents maybe 10 percent of the population. At the other side of the spectrum, 10 percent of consumers are appalled by irradiation. They believe it makes the product less safe and less nutritious and wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

The majority of the population is in the middle. They don’t know very much about irradiation, or how it would benefit them. When we share the science — that it will increase safety but doesn’t markedly affect taste or nutrition — they are ready to buy it. They want to buy it. The goal is getting the correct information to the consumer.

Q: In your research, were consumers receptive to irradiating tropical fruit to provide more variety in the marketplace? If so, it seems they would be even more open to irradiation for improved food safety. What is your assessment?

A: In our study, we did ask questions about availability of certain imported tropical fruits like papaya and mango that consumers wouldn’t have access to if not irradiated. That’s purely a pleasure application, and consumer feedback toward irradiation was extremely positive. Great irradiated mangos were shipped into the U.S. last year. I’ve had delicious irradiated mangos from India and Thailand. Mexico is revving up to ship irradiated mangos. It is just a matter of being sure all regulatory approvals are in place because this is a quarantine operation. More irradiated fruits will be appearing in supermarkets.

You’re not cooking your iceberg lettuce. If consumers can appreciate irradiation in the form of pleasure, eating product that might not normally be available, it is not a leap to expect they will be even more enthusiastic about irradiation in the form of food safety, and they will have confidence they are serving their family safe product that is good for them.

Q: Since your research suggests the majority of consumers just need to know more information about the irradiation process to feel comfortable in purchasing the product, what communication efforts do you suggest, and by whom?

A: Having a grocery store put irradiated product on the shelves is an endorsement in and of itself. It is even better if the grocery store promotes it. Tell shoppers this is good for you. You’re buying a value-added product that is safe and nutritious.

Q: Wegmans has been progressive in this regard, offering consumers its own brand of irradiated meat, but it seems to remain a niche product. Why hasn’t it taken off?

A: Wegmans’ irradiated ground beef is fresh, not frozen, which means they need high enough turnover. I see that as a good thing. They wouldn’t carry irradiated beef if they weren’t getting good reaction.

I believe it would be helpful for any introduction of irradiated product to have the health community stand up and support it. Inform consumers it adds further protection to their families, and it is labeled to distinguish it. When there is another food safety problem related to leafy greens, this product is a safe haven and will protect your health.

The percentage of contaminated produce is extremely small and a testament to the industry’s food safety vigilance. Still, who wants to take the chance? The public expects safe product. This kill step means consumers can serve product with 100 percent confidence; it’s the only way when dealing with raw fresh produce.

Q: What about quality issues? Is there still a learning curve on balancing the higher doses of irradiation needed for food safety with maximizing taste, texture, and nutritional content for commercial application?

A: Just like any other approach to handling food, you do it through preserving flavor and quality; depending on your techniques you can make beautiful toast or hunks of charcoal. Can it be done where irradiated products are indistinguishable in taste and texture from non-irradiated products and the nutrition is preserved? The answer is yes. Early literature showed problems. Don’t look at studies done 15 or 20 years ago. Let’s do it right and give consumers a choice.

Q: In contrast to your research, anti-irradiation groups, while relatively small in number, have been quite vocal in expressing concerns and trying to stop progress.

A: I believe statements Food and Water Watch makes are not supported by science. Nutritional damage and concerns about safety are not based on the facts. Recognized health authorities confirm this. CDC and FDA mandates require safety and nutritional value are considered before they grant approval. These anti-irradiation groups are expressing their philosophical views.

Q: Food and Water Watch claims that irradiation of foods produces furans, which are poisonous. Furans have been at issue in FDA’s regulatory approval process of irradiated foods. Is there valid reason for concern?

A: Furan is a compound that can form in extremely small levels in foods that have sugar interacting with other compounds in the food matrix. Furans exist in canned goods and other foods as part of their composition. They are not hazardous. That’s one myth this Food and Water Watch organization propagates. Spinach and lettuce don’t even have furans.

Q: Is that one reason why FDA finally gave the OK for spinach and iceberg, but has delayed approval of irradiation for other types of foods like deli meats and ready-to-eat items?

A: The delay is for broader reasons. Deli meats cover a whole range of different foods, soy, milk powder, many different ingredients, etc. FDA wants to be sure it has investigated all the ingredients and how they interact with the irradiation process. In regards to fresh foods, FDA is assessing how many furans would be permissible before effects can be shown. The product needs a certain concentration of furans for there to be a safety concern. It would require consuming a heck of a lot of food.

Q: What challenges lie ahead?

A: The challenges I see are mainly logistical, first building the facilities. The ideal would be inline operations in Salinas and Arizona when production shifts seasonally. Companies want to test the concept with irradiation facilities already in place before building them into their own operations.

The issue of consumer acceptance of irradiated produce is something of a red herring:

First, right now no one is proposing irradiating all produce or even all spinach and iceberg lettuce. So it is not necessary to have 100% consumer endorsement. We have suggested initially pitching the product as a foodservice application to hospitals, senior citizen centers, assisted living facilities and other specialized places where consumers may have impaired immune systems.

Second, Dr. Bruhn is right on in saying that the key impediment in consumer acceptance of irradiated food is lack of availability. The meager research we have on this, which goes back to 1992 was when Carrot Top Market in Illinois and Lorenzo’s Market in Florida sold irradiated strawberries. You can see some of the research results here. The comeuppance of this research was that when irradiated and non-irradiated product was sold side by side with appropriate educational literature, the irradiated product sold well.

The truth is that the vast majority of consumers are unlikely to know or to care. How many people who buy ground beef from Omaha Beef know they are buying irradiated product? How many know the ground beef at their local supermarket is not irradiated? The assumption in the US is that food sold commercially is safe. The very act of selling an item is an endorsement.

Third, because most consumers expect the food they buy at a supermarket to be safe, the biggest obstacle is that without inline irradiation — that is to say as long as we have to take bags and truck them some place to irradiate — irradiation will require a premium price. Now why exactly should consumers pay this premium if the product is already safe? On ground beef, Wegmans can wax poetic about rare hamburgers. Many enjoy raw chop meat. But what, exactly, is the argument for why consumers should pay more for irradiated spinach?

This is where the public health authorities come into the picture. The problem is this: They can’t simultaneously say everything is perfectly safe and we have the safest food supply in the world but consumers should pay extra for irradiated spinach and iceberg lettuce. It is not a sound argument.

We would suggest that public health authorities start out by telling the industry that the FDA intends to issue a recommendation that hospitals, assisted living facilities, retirement homes, etc., should only serve irradiated ground beef, spinach and iceberg lettuce. This would assure the industry of a reasonable-size market.

A year after making its intent clear, the FDA should issue the recommendation.

Once this market is functioning, there will be spillover as some product will find its way to retail and other foodservice uses. Years of consumption in this specialized market will assuage any concerns that others might have on irradiation.

Long term we have to expect that this technology will be as common on high risk produce items as pasteurization is on milk.

Of course, consumers and restaurants need to be aware that irradiation does not protect against cross-contamination in a kitchen, food preparation workers with dirty hands or any risk after the product is irradiated. So vigilance is still required.

We have been fortunate to enjoy the low-key persuasiveness of Dr. Bruhn at many public presentations and a few private conversations. We thank her very much for sharing her perspectives with the industry on this important issue.

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