Invasive species or irradiation: what's in your grocery cart?

On September 25, a state of emergency was declared for Santa Clara County, California. The cause was not an earthquake or a forest fire, it was three tiny European Grapevine Moths.

This insect – with powdery, taupe-colored wings decorated in spots of blue and brown – was first spotted in Napa in 2009. Native to Western Europe, they feed mainly on grape vines, but will also attack blackberries, cherries, nectarines, pomegranates and prunes. This flexibility of appetite has made it easier for them to survive as they find themselves in the Middle East and Japan and now, California.

On our other coast, bedbugs succeeded in closing down the Niketown in Midtown Manhattan, and before that, they’d infested entire hotels, retail outlets and the Empire State Building. In the last few years, Cimex lectularius population has increased by 500%. This surge is reflective of the fact that in 1950 bedbugs had been completely eradicated in the United States. An international traveler recently changed that.

If you consider the two news stories together, you realize that non-native pests need to be kept out, but also that it’s exceedingly easy for them to get in. In 2008, the U.S. saw 50.5 million visitors. Imagine the additional number of Americans who traveled to the home of, say, the Mediterranean Fruit Fly or the Garden Soldier Fly and could have unknowingly brought one back in a suitcase or a hiking boot or in a shipment of imported produce.

A smaller world for us translates into a bigger world for bugs.

In 2009, an aggressive, venomous spider from Central America was found amongst the bananas in a Tulsa Whole Foods. A year earlier, there were two reports of non-native venomous spiders found in grapes at two different Costco locations. What's more, apple maggots tunnel into apples, and stink bugs burrow into the skin of pears. Figs practically beg insects (specifically, wasps) to enter them in order to be pollinated. The fact is, fruit – with their sweetness, their yielding flesh, their moist environment - make a nice home for bugs. 

That’s where irradiation comes in. 

Basically, irradiation is the exposure of food to high-energy gamma rays and electron beams. This treatment either kills the insect stowaways, or it sterilizes them, breaking off their life cycle and making infestation impossible. But irradiation may be less a scalpel and more a mallet. 

In the process of killing bugs, the irradiation damages the sensitive fruit by altering it down to its cell walls. In studies of various levels of irradiation treatment on produce, the texture of plums changed. They became squishy, more watery and more prone to damage in shipping. Nectarines changed in smell, strawberries lost their color and turned white. And the taste of the fruit was distorted as well, taking on hints of “sulfur”, “singed hair” and “burnt oil.”

According to the Center for Food Safety, the nutrients in irradiated fruit is affected as well. Up to 40% of the beta-carotene in oranges is lost, and anywhere from two to 95% of a fruit’s vitamins can be negated by the process.

Proponents of irradiation would argue that some nutrients are lost whenever a piece of produce is cooked, baked or canned. But in this case, if there’s little point in eating a sliced, irradiated tomato for its nutritive qualities, there’s even less reason to consume it in a tomato soup. It’s been turned into nothing more than empty calories.

Even more noxious is the fact that lab rats fed irradiated foods had problems with stunted growth and colon tumors. While the FDA asserts that "the energies [used in irradiating fruit] are too low to produce radioactivity", they've never tested the by-products that can be found in food only after its been irradiated.

Not many foods have been approved by the FDA for irradiation yet, although the U.S. is the world leader in food irradiation. The categories that receive the most irradiation are meat/poultry, potatoes, cereals and produce from regions that harbor pests not seen within our borders. That would be: carambola, cherimoya, dragon fruit, guava, pineapple, lychee, longans, mangos, mangosteens, papaya, passionfruit, rambutan, sapodilla, soursop …


As a self-professed fruitie, that’s pretty much what I’ve been subsisting on since summer. I knew when I walked into the Asian market that I was straying from an otherwise organic diet, but the facts make me queasy. And also rather grateful that I discovered my fruit-love after giving birth and not when I might be passing food-zombie-genetics to my baby.

There are safe alternatives to irradiation, like:
• Freezing or flash-freezing, which would kill pests
• Lowering oxygen content in shipping containers, which would suffocate pests
• More thorough inspection of produce prior to shipping, which would hopefully catch pests

But there is also a clear reason why these will never be accepted as viable solutions:
• Money

It turns out, irradiation of produce has another side effect, one very beneficial to corporations. When a fruit is treated with irradiation, all the living cells within it - all of the microbes, good bacteria and bad - are destroyed. Stripped of bacteria, a fruit will decay at a slower rate. It will have a much longer shelf life. Strawberries treated with irradiation, for example, will last two weeks longer than those left untreated and bananas, picked green, can be delayed in their ripening for 10 days or more.

Perhaps this explains why an avocado can go from rock-hard and unripe, to rock-hard and spoiled. Or why the non-organic bananas we picked up on a whim went straight from green to spotted brown and never seemed right to eat.

And I'm wondering tonight - as I cut open the impossible shell of a mangosteen - how much the flavor is changed from what this fruit could be were I eating it in Thailand.

Like candy and cheese puffs, these mangosteens are something I won't give up even though I'm doing my body wrong by eating them. As we drop things into the grocery cart, Mark and I are conscious of our selections; we choose things based on their healthiness and ease in cooking. But when we get to the checkout, I can be counted on to reach for a crappy tabloid and a chocolate bar. Mark knows he'd have to pry them out of my cold, dead hands, so he doesn't even look at me anymore; instead, he begins to pack our purchased goods while I read and eat and enjoy life.

But - and this is something I feel strongly about - as I let the chocolate melt against the sides of my mouth and begin tasting the coconut or nougat or whatever a particular chocolate bar offers, I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm getting. No one has fooled me into thinking I'm eating something healthy.

To know if a food has been irradiated, a consumer is asked to look for a logo, the radura. Despite all my exotic fruit eating, I don't recall ever seeing the radura. I did notice a slip of paper in the mesh packaging of some mangosteens once that read; "Treated with Radiation." But never a radura. 

The labeling rules for irradiated foods are as follows:
• Retail, packaged foods and whole foods sold in bulk (such as fruit) must be labeled with the radura.
• Processed foods that contain irradiated ingredients don't need to be labeled.
• Restaurant foods that contain irradiated ingredients don't need to be labeled.

Today I swung by one of the Asian markets in Minneapolis. On sale were guavas, Indian mangoes, jujubes, papayas, and durian. None of them were labeled in any way to suggest irradiation, even though I know from all the research I've been doing that these foods are definitely treated with irradiation as part of their APHIS quarantine.

I also walked around the produce department of a mainstream grocery store. Potatoes, I've read, have been steadily treated with irradiation since 1964 to inhibit sprouting (again, extending their market life). Here, the Wisconsin Russet potatoes are displayed in a pile right next to the yams, but there's no placard showing they've been irradiated, no crate where the information might be visible, no stickers attached to the tubers themselves.

Returning home, I opened the freezer, the pantry, moved boxes around in the cupboards. Granted, we buy almost all of our food in the organic section of the grocery store or at the local co-op (where it isn't likely to find an irradiated product), but not a single package was printed with the radura. The fact is, if a fruit in my Ruby Pomegranate juice or the wheat in my daughter's Honey O's had been irradiated, the FDA's guidelines don't force a corporation to tell me. And, like I often tell my family, not telling me something is also a lie.


To learn more, read:
Food Irradiation, a reference guide.
Food Shelf Life Stability.

And visit:
Minnesota Department of Health or your state DoH.

From The Fruitie


In order to comment on, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.