Experiments on Food

If the chef were to break the news that the freshest food in the house had been zapped by radiation, the chances are that Egon Ronay would not be the only one to make his apologies and leave.

But, by this time next year, fresh chickens could be making their way to the supermarket shelf by way of an irradiation plant, where they will have been bombarded with gamma rays. Scientists claim the chickens will be more wholesome as a result.

This will be the most far-reaching of a number of new techniques revolutionizing the way food is processed.

Eating habits are changing rapidly, and scientists are racing to keep up with them. There are two apparently contradictory trends: people want convenience foods, but they also want the food to be fresher and healthier. And reconciling those two demands is one of the biggest technical problems to confront food experts.

“A lot of skilful technology is going into making food appear as if it comes straight from the field”, says Dr Alan Holmes, director of the Leatherhead Food Research Association, one of Europe’s leading food research centers.

At the food center last week, Debbie Brown munched her way through hamburgers and apples, as electrodes attached to her cheek fed to a computer details of the way she ate. The computer simultaneously produced a print-out of what was going on.

It is the first time that this technique, called electromyography, has been used, and Holmes reckons it will give the first objective measure of the way people eat food. It will also allow the center’s 680 members, which include the big food companies, to learn more about the texture of their products.

But Holmes reckons the big changes in food processing will come with gamma rays. “Irradiation may have as big an impact on the frozen food industry as frozen food did on the tin can”, he says. And the first moves in this direction are likely to be given the go-ahead later this year with the publication of a report by a special government advisory committee.

Scientists believe irradiated food will last longer. It will increase several fold the time for which fruit and vegetables can be kept at low temperatures – the chill life. Ripening in some fruits – such as banana – can be delayed for weeks.

A low dose of gamma rays will kill insects, mold and bacteria. It is already being used in Japan to prevent sprouting in potatoes which are destined for the crisp and chip industry.

The gamma rays come from a Cobalt-60 source and kill the micro-organisms responsible for the deterioration of food by disrupting the DNA of the offending bug.

The technique already has the approval of such bodies as the World Health Organization and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. It is already being used in several countries. The Dutch extend the life of their strawberries, for instance, and in South Africa it is used widely on fruit.

Spices, notorious for the hordes of bugs that accompany them are regularly bombarded by radiation. But it is banned in Britain apart from some medical applications.

Advocates of the technique argue that it will make food more “natural”. In many cases, such as the spices, it can replace the use of toxic chemicals. It is known as a ‘cold’ technique (it can penetrate packaging), and, according to Frank Ley, director of the radiation services company Isotron, should be competitively priced. Furthermore, it leaves no radiation residue in the food.

company has four big irradiation plants, each the size of a detached house with 6ft-thick walls surrounding the Colbalt-60 radiation source. These are the biggest facilities in the country and stand to benefit considerably if the government gives the go-ahead. At present they are used to sterilize medical and pharmaceutical products.

Eventually, irradiation could be built into the production facilities of large-scale producers. The big producers and supermarket chains, characteristically coy about their plans in such a competitive environment, are said to be showing a lot of interest in irradiation.

The food industry is optimistic that the government will give board approval for low-level irradiation of fruit and vegetables. Others feel the committee may recommend case-by-case approval, beginning with chicken, prawns, strawberries, spices and onions.

Another reason why the industry is being discrete is the emotive nature of the subject. It does have its critics. The GLC – funded London Food Commission, for instance, has called for wider discussion of possible toxicological effects and nutritional losses. But in general, there is surprisingly wide scientific endorsement of low-level irradiation of food.

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