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Irradiation Without the Glow

For a process that promises to eliminate one of the food industry’s biggest problems—food-borne pathogens—irradiation is sure having a heck of a time reaching critical mass.

The problem, of course, is the process itself. While most reputable scientists insist that the technique is perfectly safe and highly effective in destroying bacterial contamination (see the March 1998 FM), consumers remain leery about ingesting food that has been exposed to deadly levels of radiation from creepy sounding elements like cobalt 60 or cesium 137.
But so-called gamma irradiation is only one form of irradiation. Electronic pasteurization (or electron beam irradiation) uses electron beams generated by electricity, rather than radioactive elements, to destroy pathogens.

While electronic pasteurization technology is not new, some costly aspects of the process made it impractical for widespread implementation in the past. However, some scientific breakthroughs made in the early 1980s as part of the government’s research for the “Star Wars” missle defense system have now been adapted by Titan Corporation, a San Diego-based vendor of information technology, satellite communications systems and services, and medical product sterilization and food pasteurization products. Titan is in the process of going to market with Sure Beam, an electronic pasteurization system that can be integrated into a conventional food processing environment.

Sure Beam works by taking high-energy electrons from standard commercially supplied electricity and accelerating them through food products. The accelerated electrons kill pathogens like e. coli, listeria and salmonella almost instantly by destroying their DNA. Titan has already used similar technology for decades to sterilize medical products like sutures used in surgery.

Sure Beam has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration. As of late November, Titan was waiting for the U.S. Agriculture Department to issue regs that would allow the company to proceed with commercial implementation of Sure Beam in meat processing environments. Major meat and poultry processors like Cargill, IBP, Excel Corp. and Tyson Foods have already signed on for the right to use the new technology once those regs are finalized.

While gamma irradiation continues to fight a public relations battle for acceptance, Titan claims that its process is noncontroversial. The basic technique of electronic pasteurization has the support of such hypersensitive food industry critics as the Safe Food Coalition and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, says Ralph Williams, director of corporate communications.

Other proponents include establishment heavyweights like the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, the U.S. Public Health Service and the Institute of Food Technologists.

Electronic pasteurization has several advantages over gamma irradiation, says Williams. First, because it uses electricity rather than exotic radioactive elements, “it provides an environmentally friendlier alternative. We don’t need any clearances from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

Using commercially available electricity also provides greater flexibility, convenience and cost control. Unlike gamma irradiation, which must be performed at special facilities and therefore entails additional transport costs and logistical steps—not to mention expensive safeguards—Sure Beam can be integrated into the production process.

“The processor can set up the system so that hamburger patties for example can be treated after coming off the production line and before being shipped,” Williams explains. “The cost is about a penny a burger and the beam can treat more than 40,000 patties an hour.”

Finally, the electron beam is instantly adjustable, with exposure levels controlled by the turn of a dial, and it can be turned on or off instantaneously. Gamma irradiation requires time to shut down or start up the process, or to adjust radiation exposure levels.

On the other hand, gamma technology is more effective at irradiating thicker and denser products, and is more efficient at mass-treating large quantities of product in bulk batches.
Neither process is said to affect the basic nutritional integrity of the food in any major way.

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