The word “irradiation” may bring up some negative connotations. However, in the realm of food and more importantly food safety, irradiation is a good thing in helping keep consumers healthy and extend the shelf life to reduce food waste. Irradiation is a process highly used with consumer proteins and veggies such as: beef, pork, lettuce, and spinach. However, Dr. Robert Smith from NOVA Southeastern University, a trained microbiologist, wants to add another one to the list: finfish.

Roughly two years ago, Dr. Smith was approached to help lead research that further understood the effects of irradiation of finfish in hopes of the Food and Drug Administration approving this method for finfish. “[They approached me] because there were some outstanding concerns about whether irradiation might pose a microbiological risk [to this seafood category].”

Research That Aims to Move U.S. Regulations

At first, Smith wanted to see the effects on different substrates and foods, but the FDA insisted that they wanted to see it in finfish. “The reasoning was that because we are a Vitamin D deficient society.” Smith said, “Finfish represents one of the only excellent sources of Vitamin D in people’s diet, so they wanted to absolutely ensure there is no effect on it.”

“[The FDA] wants to see it in the specific item you intend to irradiate. Certainly, things like Mollusks and Crustaceans that don’t have a lot of vitamin D, we could in theory apply this knowledge to them because they are compositionally similar.” But, seafood is diverse, that’s why it’s important to test each category.

Smith said, “In all the meetings I’ve had with them (FDA) they have been extremely on point; they look and consider everything. On two separate occasions I’ve met them virtually and presented ideas on how to extract, sample size, types of finfish, how many doses of irradiation would convince them, etc. and a lot of the approach that we’ve put into this award was their advice.”

One important piece of the FDA’s assistance was what type of finfish to actually use for the project. Considering there are so many variations of finfish, there were a lot of options to choose from. “I believe their thought process was to pick the most highly consumed finfish in North America and combine that with the ones with the highest amount of vitamin D.” Dr. Smith said, that safeguarded them in two ways. For one, any drop would have a significant impact on the health of the average American. Second, by choosing something that was high in Vitamin D, it would not be due to a technical error.”

How it all works:

Testing the effects of Vitamin D on food is not unique as researchers have done this; but certainly, testing the effects of Vitamin D on finfish has not been done before, especially on this scale. “When we are doing a control experiment, we were trying to one, detect vitamin D, and two, that we were recovering as much Vitamin D as possible. What we did was take some finfish, put some Vitamin D in it. We then extracted what we thought was Vitamin D and we compared what we put in initially to what we got out at the end to again make sure that we could recover vitamin D and determine the amount of loss during the extraction process.”

These experiments show two things for Dr. Smith and his research. It shows that one, the experiments he performs are working, and two, it shows if he needs to change or alter anything to reduce loss with the finfish.

Looking Ahead

The reality is much of the food Americans consume is actually irradiated. For example, chicken and mollusks are proteins approved for irradiation in the U.S. and is arguably, widely unknown by shoppers as labeling is only required for retail.

This specific  type of irradiation does not change the finfish, in fact, it enhances food safety and further protects the consumer from pathogenic bacteria that could otherwise  cause a significant infection in someone.

The major benefit for the public is that it makes food safer, while preserving the Vitamin D needed for a deficient customer-base. Dr. Smith said, “I’m really excited about what we are getting out of the lab right now as it’s showing a minimal drop of vitamin D which is fantastic even at high levels of irradiation, this means that we have a very high safety net.”

Dr. Smith emphasized “This also presents a huge opportunity for the public to make their finfish safer without changing how it looks, smells, tastes and more.”

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