An assessment of food irradiation rules in Europe found that the legislation is unlikely to have much of an impact on use due to a decline sparked by industry and consumer fears, despite the evidence scientists of its security.
European Union directives on the subject entered into force in 1999 and have not changed significantly since. A roadmap was produced in 2017, followed by a study commissioned by DG Health and public comments in 2020, which received 72 responses, mostly from EU citizens.
The assessment found that the directives had been ineffective in ensuring a level playing field between EU countries and third countries and, due to a labeling requirement, had affected companies’ ability to use the ‘irradiation.
Irradiation is a food decontamination technique and an opinion from the European Food Safety Authority in 2011 concluded that it is effective in ensuring the microbiological safety of food. Some consumer associations and the European Parliament have previously raised concerns that it could be misused by companies to mask poor hygiene in production processes.
The United States Food and Drug Administration has approved a variety of foods for irradiation, including beef and pork; shellfish such as lobster, shrimp and crab; fresh fruits and vegetables; lettuce and spinach; Poultry; eggshells and spices and seasonings.
Current situation in Europe
The EU irradiated more than 9,200 tonnes of food in 2010, but less than 4,000 tonnes in 2019. The main reason for the decline appears to be industry fears that consumers will refuse to buy food labeled as irradiated, although this has not been demonstrated. In 2018 and 2019, over 80 percent of irradiated food in the EU was processed at a facility in Belgium.
Only dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings are allowed EU-wide, but different products have national approvals. The words “irradiated” or “treated with ionizing radiation” must appear on the packaging. An initiative to approve other products was launched in 2000, but met opposition from a number of food companies and consumer organizations, and was shut down by the European Parliament in 2002.
The latest data shows 24 approved irradiation facilities in 14 EU countries. The main irradiated products are frog legs, poultry and dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable condiments. Ten sites are approved in countries outside the EU. Three each in South Africa and India, two in Thailand and one each in Switzerland and Turkey.
Between 1999 and 2019, there were 358 RASFF notifications related to irradiation. The most common countries of origin for products subject to notifications were China, the United States, Russia and Vietnam – none of them having EU approved irradiation facilities . In 2020, six alerts were recorded: two from China and one from the United States, India, Vietnam and Belgium.
Member States carry out official controls but the intensity differs considerably, more than half being carried out by Germany. Almost all of the non-compliances relate to imported food, suggesting potential gaps in the enforcement of border irradiation legislation.
Future direction is unclear
The results of the work do not indicate any option for the future of European legislation on food irradiation, among the four identified: status quo, adoption of a European list of foods authorized to be irradiated and modification or repeal of directives. .
As long as the EU food industry and consumers are reluctant about irradiated food, the legislation will have negligible impact on the use of the technology, according to the report.
Due to the lack of data on food irradiation and its alternatives, the evaluation could not conclude to what extent the rules have contributed to better food hygiene and a reduction in foodborne outbreaks.
Regulations have failed to harmonize irradiation legislation across the EU with national agencies capable of enforcing authorizations and bans on irradiated foodstuffs other than herbs and spices . Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland have a national list of authorizations for the treatment of foodstuffs by ionizing radiation.
The EU report says industry reluctance to use food irradiation can have serious consequences, as evidenced by the ethylene oxide (ETO) incident.
“In September 2020, residues of ETO, a substance banned in the EU and dangerous for human health, were detected in sesame seeds from India. The seeds had been treated with this dangerous substance to remove microbiological contamination, while food irradiation could have been used for the same purpose, ”according to the report.
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