FOOD irradiation is like a genie stuck halfway out of the bottle. Scientists like the idea of preserving food with nuclear radiation. Consumer and environmental groups don't. Their opposition has already brought the fledging food-irradiation industry to a near standstill in the United States. The next battleground is western Europe. What happens at the European Community (EC) could well determine whether the controversial technology will expand into the developing world or wither away, proponents say.
``Much will depend on whether the EC's guidelines for food irradiation will take effect or not,'' says J. F. Diehl of West Germany's Federal Research Center for Nutrition. ``If it doesn't go through, I don't see any growth,'' he says.
The process has been around for more than 30 years as a way to preserve and extend the shelf life of food. It was first used commercially in 1973 when Japan began irradiating potatoes. Some 37 countries allow food irradiation of some sort; at least 15 of them have commercial facilities, according to the Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, sponsored by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
``Food applications on a global basis are steadily growing,'' says George Giddings, a food scientist and irradiation consultant in Randolph, N.J. The number of treatment facilities has grown from a handful in 1980 to close to 50 today, the Division of Nuclear Techniques reports.
But in most cases, the process is only used on a limited number of foods, such as spices, potatoes, or onions. And resistance to the technology is building.
Consumer groups have questioned the safety of the process (see box at left). The International Organization of Consumers' Unions, representing consumer groups in 70 countries, wants a worldwide moratorium on irradiation until methods are developed to detect irradiated food and properly label it.
Here in the US, consumer groups have effectively stopped the industry in its tracks.
``It doesn't have a near-term market,'' says James Solakian, a financial advisor for RTI Inc. RTI ought to know. Under its former chief executive officer, the Rockaway, N.J., firm lost between $11 million and $12 million trying to break into the business, Mr. Solakian says. In 1987, it gave up on the process and devoted itself to sterilizing medical devices.
Large US companies, such as McDonald's Corporation, Campbell Soup Company, H.J. Heinz Company, and Quaker Oats Company, have also given up on the process - in large part because of pressure from consumer and other activist groups. When the US Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for poultry this spring, that industry did not leap at the opportunity.
``It's not something consumers are asking for,'' says Christina Roessler, executive director of Food & Water Inc. The nonprofit public interest group based in New York has led the largely successful fight against the technology. Ms. Roessler remains concerned that other companies will jump into the business, such as a Florida company that received a building permit this month for an irradiator for citrus and chicken.
WITH growth prospects dimmed in the US, the focus of attention has shifted elsewhere.
The issue is a stumbling block in the EC's effort to harmonize the food regulations of its member nations. West Germany and Luxembourg, for example, do not allow food irradiation at all. But Belgium and the Netherlands are irradiating deep-frozen shrimp. France is irradiating deboned chicken.
A compromise may be in the works. On June 20 the EC Council of Ministers discussed a proposal that would allow only herb and spice irradiation in the long run. But until that legislation was enacted, countries could authorize certain other products, as long as they were labeled irradiated.
The outcome has worldwide significance, argues Dr. Diehl. If industrialized nations reject the technology, then so will developing countries, which often do not have enough refrigeration and other alternatives available to preserve their crops.
Food & Water Inc. is concerned that developed nations will set up food irradiators in the third world to reexport the food and build markets and acceptance for irradiated food. Canada was criticized last year for setting up the first commercial-scale food irradiator in Thailand.