Iowa State University is shutting down its food irradiation facility and moving research operations to a Sioux City company. Irradiation kills bacteria on food and prevents outbreaks of e-coli and other illnesses. Professor Dennis Olson leads the I.S.U. research, and says the move will save the university around 130-thousand dollars annually.
Olson says the Sadex facility in Sioux City has an electron beam irradiation system similar to the one I.S.U. used, so they can eliminate the cost of the facility, while still doing research. The Iowa State facility opened in January of 1993 after some 400 people got sick from eating at the Jack-in-the-Box fast food restaurants.
Olson says some companies use irradiation on their ground beef and other foods, but hasn’t become the norm in the country because interest dies down after the spotlight turns off big outbreaks. He says other events after the 1993 outbreak also kept irradiation from becoming more common.
He says the Surebeam Corporation, which had been leading the way in the field, went bankrupt, and interest waned. But Olson says there were more outbreaks in 2006 with lettuce and spinach, and last summer with chili peppers, and the most recent outbreak with peanut butter. Olson says federal regulations have also kept irradiation from becoming more common. As an example, he says lettuce could be treated for insect control, but it took awhile to get irradiation approval to kill bacteria.
Olson says that approval final came last August, and he says there will probably have to be another catastrophe before they are able to move ahead and use it. He says peanut butter has been awaiting F.D.A. approval for irradiation use for over nine years. Olson says cost factors also play a role in irradiation. He says a factory with a large volume that can use irradiation on site would only add two or three cents to the cost of the food.
But, he says shipping food to another location to be irradiated would cost 10 times more. Olson says they are making slow progress in using irradiation to prevent food illnesses, but compares it to the time it took to finally get pasteurization as a common procedure to prevent sickness from drinking milk.