The method, in which food is exposed to specific doses of gamma, X-ray or other radiation to kill bacteria and prevent regrowth, could soon be used by food companies to extend the shelf life of products in the UAE and protect against disease.
Local interest grows in food irradiation
Nuclear technology could soon be used by food companies to extend the shelf life of products in the UAE and protect against disease carrying bacteria and microbes, food experts say.
When food is exposed to specific doses of radiation such as gamma ray, X-ray and high-energy electrons, the radiation affects the cells of micro-organisms found in food, killing them and preventing re-growth.
Irradiation plants have already been built in 60 countries, including some in the Middle East, said David Byron, the head of the food and environmental protection section of the Joint Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) division of nuclear techniques in food and technology.
Irradiation limits the growth of bacteria, pathogens such as salmonella, fungi and insects. The method has been approved by the World Health Organisation.
The Abu Dhabi Food Control Authority (ADFCA) is now hoping to raise the profile of irradiation in the food industry here.
"It's a new subject, our goal is to make people aware of the technology," said Mabrouk Allagi, the head of the authority's Radiation Unit. "We think the UAE needs to know about it."
Legislation is already in place that would allow companies to operate a radiation plant. The IAEA has offered to partner with any interested business to "prepare a programme" for setting up operations, said Mr Allagi.
Restrictions on irradiation vary by country. In the US, irradiation is used on fresh and frozen meat to kill bacteria. It is also used on herbs, fruits and vegetables to delay growth and kill pests.
The US Food and Drug Administration first approved the use of it on wheat in 1963.
The European Union has approved irradiation for herbs and spices only, but allows member states to create their own limitations.
International policy says that all irradiated food must carry a label, a rule that can be hard to enforce.
According to Mr Allagi, there is no way to know if irradiated food is currently on market shelves in the UAE. About 90 per cent of the UAE's food is imported.
The ADFCA is developing laboratories that will be able to test whether or not food has been irradiated, and by how much. The labs should be operational by 2012, said Mr Allagi.
Irradiation does affect the chemical and biological make-up of foodstuff, and critics say byproducts of irradiation could be carcinogenic, and that there has not been enough research into the long-term effects.
Other opponents say that the technology can mask spoilage and encourage unsanitary conditions during processing, as workers assume the food is decontaminated.
But its applications could be vast. Irradiation is applied to harvested crops to kill insects, which can contribute to reducing pesticide use, said Mr Byron.
The IAEA noted that further application of the technology could drastically alter the landscape of global agriculture.
"Drastic steps are needed to counter the declining productivity of existing cropland," Mr Byron said, estimating that the growth of agriculture productivity would slow to 0.4 per cent by the 2040s.
Agricultural productivity increased 2.9 per cent in the 1960s, and was down to to 1.6 per cent in the 1990s.
Nuclear technology can be used to improve soil fertility and increase a plant's ability to absorb fertilisers, according to Mr Byron. Radiation-induced mutations such as drought-resistant cotton plants and saline-resistant rice would reduce the impact of poor soil and harsh, dry climates. Treating food imports with radiation would help control the spread of animal disease and pests, he added.