More irradiated food likely in Irish shops after US move

 

The US Food and Drug Administration decision to allow more extensive use of food irradiation to control food-poisoning outbreaks will not result in a similar move by Ireland. It is, however, likely to mean more irradiated food on Irish supermarket shelves.

A Department of Agriculture spokesman said yesterday it was aware of the US move this month to extend irradiation use to red meat, but added: "There is no demand for that type of treatment of food in Ireland."

Any such move here is likely to be resisted, not only by the Department but also by consumers and food specialists. The integrity of Irish meat, and the types and scale of food-processing here, make irradiation inappropriate, he added.

World trade agreements will, nonetheless, make it difficult, if not impossible, to restrict irradiated food imports now that its use is extended in the world's largest food-exporting nation.

The spokesman confirmed there could be trade implications. In the light of European reservations, the issue will be raised at a meeting early next month between the EU Agriculture Commissioner, Mr Franz Fischler, and the US Agriculture Secretary, Mr Dan Glickman.

Relations between Europe and the US on food issues have been strained recently because of EU opposition to US poultry-processing and its policies on hormone and antibiotic use. The US retaliated with threats to curtail meat importation from EU states with BSE.

The FDA decision followed endorsement of the technique by the World Health Organisation. Irradiation - exposure of food to low levels of radiation (usually gamma rays) to kill bacteria - was permitted for poultry, pork, fruit and vegetables in the US but used very little. Imported spices and some vegetables can be irradiated at source, many of which already reach Irish markets.

Its expense and consumer wariness about its safety meant use of irradiation was limited. Resistance in Ireland has centred on issues of aesthetics and flavour rather than food safety. Food microbiologists, including Dr Mary Upton of UCD, have questioned its appropriateness when used on high-fat foods and red meat because of the generation of off-flavours.

US food processors sought clearance for more extensive use of irradiation after increased federal powers for the recall of defective foods were introduced. The FDA decision followed high-profile food-poisoning cases due to E coli 0157 and salmonella. Last summer one company had to recall 25 million lbs of hamburger meat on the basis that it may have been tainted by E coli.

The level of commercialisation and intensification within the US food sector is not matched in Europe and "leads to greater problems with disease control", the Department of Agriculture spokesman said. That is believed to be a big factor in the FDA decision.