The deadly Escherichia coli crisis that killed 47 people in Germany alone and left thousands seriously ill could almost certainly have been averted by irradiating the fenugreek seeds blamed for the outbreak.
That’s according to Dominic Dyer, ceo of the Crop Protection Association, who told FoodManufacture.co.uk that wider irradiation of (particularly organic) foodstuffs within the UK and EU would seriously reduce the risk of foodborne illness.
Food irradiation involves exposing it to electron beams, X-rays or gamma rays. Once absorbed the energy forms molecules called ‘free radicals’ that kill micro-organisms such as campylobacter, salmonella and E.coli.
Dyer said the fact that it was unfortunate that a German farm at the centre of the outbreak was organic, when it could just as easily have been run on conventional lines, and that a wider debate was needed on the safety of irradiation within the wider food chain.
However, Dyer noted entrenched opposition within the European organic industry to technologies like irradiation, due to standards that exclude it developed by trade bodies such as the Soil Association (SA).
Despite being endorsed as safe by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and bodies such as the World Health Organisation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, irradiation is permitted only for seven EU food categories.
Detailed under the Food Irradiation (England) Regulations 2009, these include fruit; vegetables; cereals; bulbs and tubers; dried herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings; fish and shellfish; poultry.
Dyer said that the US government considered allowing irradiation under the US National Organic Standards in the late 1990s, but that 300,000 petitions from public and organisations including European trade associations deterred it from doing so.
If the US regulatory authorities had allowed irradiation, Dyer said he believed there might have been more pressure to follow suit here in Europe, and that irradiation would not have been viewed by consumers with distrust (along the same lines as GM) and might have been used more widely.
“But views became very polairsed, and the organic industry here wanted to be seen as pure as pure can be,” he said.
“Irrational fears” had held back a technology that, when used properly, posed a minimal risk to public health and presented less of a risk than heavy mobile phone use or staring at plasma screen, Dyer said.
While safety guidelines – followed by most UK organic producers – reduced risk, he added that irradiation was the only way to eradicate risk when producing “inherently risky” products such as beansprouts.
Irradiating the Egyptian fenugreek seeds in question would have prevented the German E.coli outbreak with 99.999% certainty, Dyer said.
An SA spokeswoman said that there was no treatment, “whether in an organic or non-organic system” that could guarantee the removal of dormant pathogens from sprouting seeds or sprouts.
Instead, she argued, it was vital to control risks throughout the food chain, where organic growers and processors undergo independent inspections to qualify for SA certification, and follow stricy safety guidelines.
Moreover, irradiation was not allowed under EU organic regulations ensuring the “integrity and vital qualities” of the product, she added, while there was also a lack of long-term studies examining the health impacts of irradiated food.
The spokeswoman added that irradiation was not permitted in non-organic foods such as dairy (due to flavour changes) and some fruits, as it causes tissue softening.
Irradiation could also kill plant workers if safeguards were not followed, she said, while irradiation of cat food imported into Australia was banned in May 2009 after it was linked to feline deaths.
“It is also impossible to tell if food has been irradiated beyond the maximum dose permitted,” she said.