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Alive and well.

Living, breathing fruits and vegetables pose special safety challenges.

The apples, strawberries, tomatoes--and even old standby potatoes--that rest quietly in the produce shelves are actually alive and breathing.

That simple fact immensely complicates developing effective food-safety treatments for the increasing variety of fruits and vegetables in supermarkets today.

Common chemicals and pesticides, such as methyl bromide, that have been used for generations are beginning to disappear as they fail to meet strict government standards or have been found harmful to the environment--and effective alternatives are lagging. Irradiation has been used less with produce than with other food products, such as meat and poultry.

Methyl bromide, now considered harmful to the earth's ozone layer, has been a primary tool for disinfecting the soil before planting and the cargo holds of ships to kill harmful pathogens and pests.

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency have been trying to find a suitable alternative, but there won't be one," says Antonio Bravo, EPA'S special assistant for pesticides. "There will have to be a comprehensive and coordinated use of a number of alternatives," he says.

And produce growers are losing most of an entire family of "old" pesticides called organophosphates used on citrus, apples, pears and other produce. "What is happening is that many of the uses of these older organophosphates are being dropped, which narrows the grower's 'toolbox'," says Philip Poli, a USDA environmental protection specialist.

The dangers, according to government regulators and the growers, are crop failure, an accelerating trend toward international produce--which doesn't face the same environmental restrictions--and a steadily increasing price for produce as more expensive alternatives are implemented.

Figuring out effective levels for alternatives has turned into a time-consuming quest because of the individual nature of fruits and vegetables.

While scientists embrace irradiation as one of the most promising tools for keeping America's food supply safe-and the food industry braces for the next food safety scare--researchers are feverishly working to determine the effects of irradiation on individual types of fruits and vegetables.

Across the nation, irradiated beef, poultry and other items are increasingly being offered to consumers as public awareness grows about the dangers of foodborne illnesses. But the irradiation process has been mote difficult to implement with fruits and vegetables, in part because the dosage levels needed to kill pathogens would cause too much damage to some sensitive produce.

"Irradiation basically works like a cancer therapy: We try to kill the bugs and pathogens without injuring the product," says Jim Gorny, technical director for the International Fresh-cut Produce Association (IFPA), Alexandria, Va. "It works well in meat and poultry, because it is already dead and can't be hurt. But produce is unique; it's still alive."

Researchers are continuing their efforts to refine irradiation processes for produce. It is an area of research complicated not only by the intricacies of science, but also by government regulations and wariness on the part of consumers who worry about the safety of the practice.

"It scares the hell out of presidents of companies," says Ted Labuza, a professor of food science and engineering at the University of Minnesota. One reason for its slow development has been the fact that in 1958, under the Food Additives Amendment, irradiation was deemed a food additive.

Irradiation of produce is seen as one of the best alternatives to pesticides. It can kill bugs and pests. It can reduce or destroy pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. And it can increase the shelf life of products.

Carrot Top Inc., a grocer in Chicago, has been offering irradiated produce and swearing by it for several years. And late last summer, Hawaii began shipping irradiated papayas to the U.S. mainland, a welcome step for a state that has been wrestling with a federal fruit fly quarantine for more than half a century.

But by and large, irradiated produce has yet to be widely offered in American retail markets. "It just hasn't really caught on yet," says Heather Flower, spokeswoman for the Western Growers Association, Irvine, Calif., which represents growers, packers and shippers who produce more than half of the nation's produce. "So far, we see it more at the research level; it hasn't connected with growers and shippers yet." Food irradiation is not new, but it has taken on more prominence in the wake of recent deaths due to contaminated meats and other foods. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, has reported that there are 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses each year in this country, causing 5,000 deaths and 325,000 hospitalizations.

"We are one food scare away from food irradiation being widely accepted," says Kathy Means, vice president of the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del. Meat--and not produce--will likely be the driving force for acceptance, she says. The PMA doesn't promote one method of treating produce over another, but for those who choose to use irradiation, it has been determined to be a safe method, according to Means.

Currently, fruits and vegetables in the United States may only receive the relatively low dosage of 1 kilogray--enough to kill pests, but not pathogens. Researchers are now experimenting with higher dosages that would kill salmonella, E. coli and other pathogens.

"The big issue is sensory," says Michael Doyle, professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia. "If you have to irradiate to kill pathogens, the product changes. In produce, it affects the texture. For example, it might cause limpness," he says.

IFPA views irradiation as one tool among many needed to fight food contamination. "It is not a silver bullet and won't solve all of our safety problems," says Edith Garrett, president of the association.

One of the industry's main concerns is that the traditional ammunition to maintain a safe supply of fruits and vegetables is shrinking rapidly. Most of that shrinking supply can be traced to the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA).

The FQPA instilled the fear of the unknown in a lot of people," Bravo says. One of those fears was that there would be wholesale cancellation of pesticides. "That hasn't happened--and it probably won't happen," he says. "We have endeavored to make sure that before we phase out a pesticide, there are suitable alternatives."

The problem is that alternatives sometimes come with a high price tag. "There is a very fine profit margin, and eventually I predict that many of these markets--especially minor-use crops--will be forced overseas," says USDA's Poli. "It is becoming unprofitable to grow them in the United States."

The president of the California Strawberry Commission agrees--especially on the phaseout of methyl bromide. "The biggest impact right now is the economic impact on farmers," says Dave Riggs, who is also chairman of the Crop Protection Coalition. "There are certain soil-borne pests that can wipe out a crop and cause a significant loss in production."

Riggs says the Crop Protection Coalition, a group of about 30 grower associations, is asking EPA and USDA to look into new studies that indicate methyl bromide may not be as large a danger to the ozone layer as once believed. "We are asking for a review of current atmospheric impact to find out whether the trade hindering is warranted by the current state of scientific study," Riggs says.

Meanwhile, Chris Schlect, chairman of the Minor Crop Farmer Alliance--which includes such staples of the American diet as apples, pears and cherries--says the cost of alternatives to pesticides was substantial last year. "Our price went up 15% to 25% last year," Schlect says, "and, eventually, if we want to ensure a bountiful supply, those costs will have to be passed on to the retailer and consumer. Right now the purchasing power on the retail side is so significant that it is extremely difficult to pass those costs along."

The FDA has been asked to allow an increase in irradiation levels from 1 kilogray to 4 kilograys to kill pathogens. Because many of the more sensitive fruits and vegetables can't withstand 4 kilograys of radiation, researchers are studying irradiating at lower levels for longer periods of time.

Finding the right dosages will rake time and effort, Gorny says. And even then, irradiation won't solve every need. "Irradiation won't replace the modified atmosphere package or refrigeration. It is not a panacea," he says.

The FDA has several issues to explore before increased irradiation levels can be granted for fruits and vegetables, including reviewing chemical and toxicological safety issues, establishing good manufacturing practices that ensure irradiated fruits and vegetables don't outgrow their shelf life, and studying whether irradiation changes the nutritional value of fruits and vegetables. By September, the FDA hopes to have completed focus group research and gathered other relevant information on food irradiation labeling approaches.

One of the main USDA centers researching irradiation touts the treatment as an elixir for an array of fruits and vegetables. Irradiation extends the shelf life of strawberries from 3 to 21 days, controls cyclospora in raspberries, pathogens in juices and can kill pathogens in sprouts when used in conjunction with chlorine treatment, according to Don Thayer, research leader for food safety for the USDA Eastern Regional Research Center in Wynmoor, Pa.

Jimmy Corrigan, president of Carrot Top, has a different view. He has been offering irradiated produce in his single store in Northbrook, just outside Chicago, for more than five years. "Irradiation is an outgrowth of our bucking the trends," Corrigan says. "We are aware of the controversy, but we feel it's overblown."

Strawberries were among the most high-profile and interesting adventures in irradiation. In the mid-1990s, Corrigan had been buying early season strawberries from Florida. So he had them irradiated at Food Technologies Inc., a facility in Mulberry, Fla., before having them shipped to Chicago. It cost about 10 cents a pint. He found that the flavor was not affected, but the shelf life increased an average of 13 days. He made up the irradiation cost through reduced waste from spoilage.

Corrigan promoted the berries, holding blind taste tests to see if consumers could tell the difference. In most of these unscientific tests, about a third of the people favored one type, a third favored the other and a third could distinguish no difference. "The big advantage to the customer was that they could buy strawberries that were still good a week later," he says.

Papayas are coming from Hawaii Pride, Keaau, Hawaii, which partnered with SureBeam Corporation to begin producing irradiated tropical fruit last summer. The technology involves accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light, forming a beam and scanning the fruit to kill pests, says Wil Williams, a SureBeam spokesman. The company is a subsidiary of The Titan Corp., a technology firm headquartered in San Diego. SureBeam also is heavily involved in producing irradiated ground beef.

When the commercial e-beam/converted X-ray facility became operational last July on the island of Hawaii, the state became the first place in the world to use irradiation as a quarantine treatment of fruits, says James H. Moy, professor of food engineering at the University of Hawaii. "With the radiation dose applied, no fruit flies could survive because all the eggs and larvae, if they existed in fruits, would be sexually sterilized by radiation. Thus they lose the potential to produce their offspring." SureBeam refers to the process as "electronic pasteurization."

"The word irradiation frightens people," Williams explains. "Yet, when you stick food in a microwave oven, it's the same principle."

With the SureBeam process, the fruit can be picked tree-ripened and treated. The company processes hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, Williams says, and has introduced the treated papayas in a number of markets, including Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Portland and Dallas.
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Title Annotation:produce standards
Author:Hennessy, Terry
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2001
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