In the final part of our special on dry decontamination technology, we check in with US and German experts to see if zapping food with electron beams to decontaminate it could offer processors a pathogen free future.
Dr Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research in the US, the aim of which is to advance the technology with a range of industrial sectors, claims:
“The beauty of electron beam generation is that it is a clean, chemical free switch on/switch off decontamination technology, and one that is much faster than the traditional gamma ray irradiation methods.
While not a clean-up technology, it can give an extra 2 to 3 days shelf life to foods, retaining their colour, fresh taste and nutritional value.
“Furthermore, no radioactivity is involved and while some shielding is necessary to protect workers from the electron beam, there isn’t the need for the massive concrete walls required to stop gamma rays,” he added.
Ebeam has not been approved in the US for use in ready meals or prepared food, but rather spices and herbs, ground beef, poultry, shellfish, and fresh produce.
While the greatest take-up has been in the pharmaceutical industry (7 per cent of that sector use ebeam), Pillai believes that there are enough foods now with permission to be irradiated status from the Food and Drink Administration (FDA) to encourage greater adoption of ebeam by food manufacturers as a critical tool for their food safety kits.
“Currently only about 1 per cent of the global food industry – mainly US based – uses ebeam at the final stage of their processes, and those that do often rely on third party facilities rather than having a housing co-located at their own processing sites,” explained the researcher.
A momentum is gathering though, he told FoodProductionDaily.com
“If you were to ask the five or six biggest ebeam suppliers about interest from food producers say eight years ago, you would’ve had a much different reaction than today –technology providers are now beginning to sense greater demand in this market.”
But there are hurdles still to be overcome before wider adoption in the US food industry:
“There is a disconnect between the FDA approval process for irradiation of foods and that around packaging materials, which doesn’t help propel the technology forward.
The packaging typically used to wrap spinach and salads, for example, is not authorised for irradiation. However, the FDA said it is up to industry to petition it on approvals for packaging and not the other way round,” comments Pillai.
Barriers to entry
He also reckons a fundamental misunderstanding of the process by brand owners, in particular around consumer resistance, and a lack of mass production on the equipment supplier side means barriers to entry remains for a high percentage of food processors.
“We have been running workshops over the past two years to educate the food sector about this technology’s potential, emphasising that any indications of consumer mistrust around ebeam are purely anecdotal and showing how it is a final step in sterilisation and not a substitute for good manufacturing or agriculture practices.
These sessions are beginning to pay off, and we have also been teaming up with the technology providers - IBA, L-3, and Mevex - to advance more modular plug and play type ebeam systems that could eventually go in-line rather than being housed in separate facilities.”
Pillai argues food safety “should never be about competition” and urges leading brand owners to be advocates for the technology in the interests of consumers.
How low can you go?
While most research or commercial activity on ebeam and food sterilisation in the US and beyond has involved high energy electron beam technology, Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Electron Beam and Plasma Technology has been pioneering a low energy method.
Frank-Holm Roegner, who heads up the e-processing department at the Institute, told this publication that low energy ebeam uses much less energy – 250 kV of acceleration as opposed to 10 MV for the high energy ebeam method - and furthermore, has the potential to be streamlined into the production line.
He argues that as it only treats the surface layer it might have fewer food applications that the high energy version, but Roegner believes the resulting food quality is better.
The technique is effective with foods that have smooth surfaces such as frozen fish fillets or fruits. As low energy ebeams do not penetrate the foods as much as the high energy version, decontaminating meat this way could prove challenging. But, as Roegner notes: “Most of the contaminants are on the surface of a product.”
The Institute has been getting involved in US and Asia partnerships to develop and scale up its low energy approach.
A project with CSIRO in Australia, applying the technology for use with pecan nuts and macadamias, has seen some promising results, he revealed.
However, according to Roegner: “It will take at least five years before the first industrial application of low ebeam technology is available. At this stage, it is really only getting off the ground.”