USDA approves irradiation of imported fruits and vegetables

Oct 28, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has finished writing rules that open the door to the irradiation of fruits and vegetables imported into the United States.

Under the rules, published Oct 23 in the Federal Register, irradiation can be used to keep various fruit fly species and the mango seed weevil out of imported produce, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) announced. Other methods are currently used to control those pests in imported produce.

"This is not food safety irradiation, it's for plant pests," said APHIS spokesman Ed Curlett.

Irradiation can now be used in place of other permitted treatments, include cold, heat, and methyl bromide, according to the USDA. "This isn't opening a new market as far as different fruits and vegetables, it's just a different treatment for fruits and vegetables that are already allowed," Curlett said.

The Food and Drug Administration in 1986 permitted irradiation of US-grown fruits and vegetables to kill insects and improve shelf life, but the process has been little used. For the past 2 years, however, irradiated papayas and other fruits from Hawaii have been sold on the US mainland. San Diego-based SureBeam Corp. uses electron-beam equipment to irradiate fruit at a facility near Hilo, Hi., according to Mark Stephenson, the company's vice president for public relations. "An increasing number of retail chains on the West Coast are offering our products, and they're actually clearing off the shelves pretty rapidly," he said.

In a news release, Larry A. Oberkfell, SureBeam chairman and president, welcomed the USDA announcement: "This new USDA rule will allow us to expand our patented SureBeam technology into the major agricultural markets around the world, while providing American agriculture the most optimum bio-security solution available."

How long it will take for irradiated produce from foreign countries to reach US store shelves is unclear. Curlett said the new regulations provide that produce can be irradiated either in US ports or in the country of origin, but in either case the treatment will be used only under USDA monitoring.

Stephenson said SureBeam is building an irradiation facility in Brazil, but it won't be completed until sometime next year. The company is also considering building plants in several other countries. Stephenson said he is not aware of any irradiation facilities outside the United States that currently treat produce.

Publication of the USDA rule on irradiation of imported produce caps a process that dates back at least 6 years. In May 1996 the agency published a notice that it would begin studying what radiation doses are necessary to kill pests in specific produce items. In May 2000, the USDA published proposed standards for "phytosanitary" irradiation of imported produce and invited comments. More than 2,200 comments were subsenquently received, according to the Oct 23 Federal Register notice.

Many of those commenting said irradiation would make produce unsafe or reduce its nutritional value, according to the notice. In response, APHIS said those issues are the FDA's responsibility and beyond the scope of the regulations, but noted that food irradiation has been endorsed by numerous authorities, including the World Health Organization.

Many people commented that other treatments, such as methyl bromide, cold, pressure, and laser ultraviolet light pulses, should be used instead of irradiation. In its notice, APHIS replied that importers are free to use other authorized treatments, and added, "The reason that irradiation may be attractive to certain importers, particularly those importing tropical fruits from fruit fly–infested regions, is that irradiation allows fruits of higher quality to be imported." Treatments like heat, cold, and fumigation often cause unacceptable damage to produce and often must be used before produce is ripe, the notice added.

Much of the Federal Register notice deals with where irradiation facilities for imported produce can be located within the United States. The USDA decided that these facilities can generally be located only in northern states, where the climate would prevent the targeted fruit flies from establishing themselves. The exceptions to this rule are three southern ports that already have cold-treatment facilities to control imported pests: Wilmington, N.C.; Gulfport, Miss.; and the Atlanta airport.

The notice also lists approved radiation doses for 11 fruit fly species and the mango seed weevil.

See also:

Federal Register notice

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