The Union government is keen to woo large private players such as mall chains to invest in big food irradiation facilities. Food irradiation is a technology by which food items are exposed to ionizing radiation to extend their shelf lives and to make them safe for intake by eliminating pests and other organisms and also delay their ripening. The move is aimed to reduce the colossal waste of food grains in India because of worms and pests. India produces nearly 250 million tonnes of food grains every year. However, India is also home to over 194 million hungry people, according to United Nations data released last year.
“Over 38% of India’s food grains go waste in storage. Most of the agricultural produce gets wiped out by insects and pests. This means we produce food grains to feed all our hungry, and some surplus too, but still, 194 million people go hungry. The proportion of wastage is a mere 2% in the western world. We, too, can achieve less wastage if we involve large private players in opening irradiation centres. It is the national need of our agriculture to be able to feed meals twice a day to the hungry,” said Dr Sharad Kale, Associate Director of Bio Science Group of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Head of Technology Transfer and Collaboration at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
Irradiation of food items involves exposing the food to atomic rays for a limited period. The rays emitted by the atomic material irradiate the food material, thereby increasing its shelf life. The facility is monitored by strict regulations currently existent in the country. At present, all food products, except milk and milk products, are allowed to be irradiated. Large-scale irradiation takes place in medical and food sectors. Medical kits are sterilised using radiation facilities. Many ready-to-eat food items, too, are irradiated to increase their shelf lives.
“If we bring up large radiation centres, the products available in stores will have a longer shelf life. The cost of addition will take the price of the product up, but the increase in availability of food grains due to this, will reduce the cost. In totality, the cost will come down. This will help the consumers too,” said Dr Kale.
Scientists told The Sunday Guardian that the biggest challenge in this was to change public perception. “There is a lot of negativity attached to atomic energy. In fact, it’s a safe option since there is a lack of safe chemical options to preserve food. Irradiation involves exposing the food grains to a radioactive material. No atomic material is added to the food. They are exposed to the rays for only a few seconds. This is not harmful and does not change any properties of the food items,” Dr Kale explained.
He said that many countries, including India, have been researching in food irradiation for over 60 years now. “Research has proven that the properties of food items do not change (because of irradiation) and they are safe for consumption. Traditionally, in India, we expose food grains to sunlight for long hours during summer to kill all pests. But in the irradiation facilities, the gamma rays do this job in 15 seconds,” he said.
Asked about the safety concerns raised by many about the use of atomic energy, he said, tight safety regulations were in place to ensure that the facilities ran well. “There is no need to be scared of atomic energy. Consumption of anything in disproportionate amount is harmful, including that of salt. It is a matter of proportion. Atomic energy is safe when used in prescribed proportions. And enough rules currently exist to ensure that,” he said.
At present, India has 21 irradiation centres. They are all under strict regulation of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board. They are majorly used by the pharma industry for sterilising saline kits, injection units. Pet food, too, is commonly found to be irradiated at these facilities. Since the past few years, food grains, fruits, ready-to-eat food, mutton and chicken are also being irradiated.
The government has recently published atomic energy rules. In that context, the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and Atomic Energy Regulatory Board jointly organised a special meet for radiation processing facilities. The agencies invited big retail players like Reliance Fresh, Tata, D Mart, Big Bazaar, Apna Bazaar to participate in the meet. The outcome of the meeting is not yet known.