History and Background of Food Irradiation in Hawaii

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Archival Hawaii Irradiation Page

August 1, 2001

History of Irradiation in Hawaii

August 2000: Irradiated papayas begin shipping to the mainland.

March, 2000: USDA gives $6.9 million loan to electronic-beam irradiation company, Hawaii Pride, to build irradiator for papayas and small amounts of lychees, longans, star fruits and rambutans. Hawaii Pride says papayas will ship in June, 2000.

July, 1999: In response to a food-industry petition, the FDA asks the public for feedback on how to change irradiation labeling requirements. The FDA receives over 10,000 comments (over 99% negative), as well as 20,000 petition signatures opposing irradiation.

January, 1998: The Island of Hawaii votes to allow irradiation with radioactive material, as County Proposal #1 loses by 1%. However, County politicians drop plans to use nuclear irradiation. Isomedix, the company that planned to reopen the nuclear-powered Hawaii Development Irradiator, is thwarted when interest shifts to electron-beam irradiation.

November 1997: Congress passes the FDA Modernization Act, which changed the minimum required labeling of irradiated foods. First, the radura is no longer necessary. Second, the statement of irradiation can be as small as the type face on the ingredient label. Third, the FDA is told to make sure that labels did not give consumers "inappropriate anxiety". One option is to simply remove all labels! The FDA is supposed to write a new labeling regulation and submit it for public comment.

May 20, 1997: The County Council of the Island of Hawaii (known as the Big Island) voted 7-2 to approve Bill 62. Bill 62 authorized the use of local taxpayer money to build a tropical fruit irradiation plant on the island. The irradiation facility would sterilize fruit fly larvae using gamma rays generated by radioactive Cobalt-60. With the elimination of the sugar cane industry on the island within the last few years, supporters of the facility, led by Mayor Stephen Yamashiro, wanted to increase Hawaii's tropical fruit exports.

Currently, some of Hawaii's fruit is banned from the US mainland because of the fruit fly threat to mainland agriculture. Dry heat and vapor heat treatments for papaya are successfully used. However, irradiation advocates have been trying to promote nuclear irradiation.

Electron-beam irradiation compared to nuclear irradiation:

  • E-beam irradiation uses an electron 'gun' to send high-speed electrons into a food, where they bounce around and destroy harmful bacteria, as well as creating free radicals and new chemicals. The dose for fruit is between 500,000 and 2 million medical x-rays.
  • Nuclear irradiation uses nuclear materials (cobalt-60, cesium-137) that emit high-speed gamma rays. These gamma rays affect the food in the same way as electron-beams.
  • E-beam irradiation damages the nutritional elements in the food and creates free radicals even more than nuclear irradiation, because the electrons are propelled at higher speeds.
  • E-beam irradiation does not incur the environmental risks of nuclear irradiation. It is also cheaper and therefore more likely to be used for the near future.
  • E-beam irradiation may induce a trace amount of radioactivity in certain foods.
  • Both kinds of irradiation can injure workers if the machines malfunction.
  • Both kinds of irradiation use military technology. E-beam irradiation was developed for Star Wars. It is being pushed by Titan, a broker of military technology for civilian uses. Nuclear irradiation began with "Atoms for Peace" in the 1950's. Its main advocate is the Department of Defense, which sees nuclear irradiation as 1) a commercial use for nuclear power plants (cobalt-60 has to be manufactured in a nuclear reactor), 2) a way of disposing of nuclear wastes and 3) a way to 'soften' the image of nuclear power .
  • E-beam irradiation will lead to public acceptance of irradiation, at which point nuclear materials will be quietly introduced.

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