Food irradiation is one of the few technologies which address both food quality and safety by virtue of its ability to control spoilage and food-borne pathogenic micro-organisms and insect pests without affecting significantly any sensory or other organoleptic attributes. Foods are irradiated to provide the same benefits as when they are processed by heat, refrigeration, freezing or treated with chemicals.
Far from sterilising the food, which still requires proper handling and cooking, irradiation destroys disease-carrying bacteria and reduces the incidence of food borne illnesses making it possible to keep food longer, while at the same time ensuring a higher level of safety and quality. In addition, irradiation is proving to be a viable pest control method, providing phytosanitary security by preventing insects from reproducing.
After many years of research and domestic and international standards development more than 60 countries have regulations allowing the use of irradiation in at least one product. In 2003, the Joint FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission, published the Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods and the Recommended International Code of Practice for Radiation Processing of Food Irradiation is now widely accepted as a proven and effective post harvest treatment to reduce bacterial contamination, however, it is in the control of insect pests, including pests of quarantine significance where irradiation applications are quickly becoming more widely used by many countries.
With a view to harmonizing standards in irradiation worldwide, the IAEA is also collaborating closely with the International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC); the Guidelines for the Use of Irradiation as a Phytosanitary Measure have been completed and the Phytosanitary Treatments for Regulated Pests include fourteen irradiation treatments for thirteen specific insect pests and one for all fruit flies. These are opening new market opportunities by helping producers to meet increasingly rigorous quarantine requirements against invasive pests. International trade in several varieties of irradiated fruit has now commenced in the Americas and the Asia and the Pacific regions. Important gaps remain however, and “generic treatments” need to be developed against broad pest-categories to give new options for protecting agricultural production and opening avenues for increased commerce.
The long term goals of the Subprogramme include the strengthening of the national capacities of FAO/IAEA Member States in applying irradiation as a phytosanitary treatment to control insect pests in exported fruits and vegetables.