Consumers and food irradiation: Who decides?

September 24, 2002

COLLEGE STATION - Finding a way to reduce the numbers of foodborne illnesses reported each year in the United States was the basis of Arsen Poghosyan's research for his master's thesis.

"The results of this study have important implications for not only food retailers, but also for food industry decision makers and government officials who assess the market potential for irradiated food products," Poghosyan wrote.

Among the findings:Information from the Centers for Disease Control shows that each year, about 76 million cases of foodborne illness are reported in this country. "One in four Americans get a foodborne illness each year," said Dr. Rodolfo M. Nayga Jr., associate professor in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M University and committee chairman of the project.

"One in 1,000 are hospitalized, and about $6.5 billion is spent in medical and other costs" fighting foodborne illnesses.

Food irradiation has been proven effective in reducing pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses, Nayga said, but some consumers still have questions about the safety of the technique. Poghosyan set out to measure consumers' reactions to irradiated foods, as the first phase of a multi-phased ongoing research project.

Nayga listed food irradiation as a public health and disease-prevention breakthrough, along with pasteurization of milk, immunization and chlorination of the public water supply. In addition to killing pathogens that cause foodborne illnesses - especially those that cause Salmonella, E. coli O157, Campylobacter, Listeria and Toxoplasma - food irradiation can also delay ripening and spoilage of fresh fruits and vegetables, extend the shelf-life of perishable items and commercially sterilize foods, he said.

Poghosyan's research was done in survey form. "I surveyed grocery shoppers to evaluate their perceptions about food irradiation, and their willingness to accept such products and buy them," he wrote.

Three H-E-B supermarkets in each of three Texas cities - Austin, Houston and San Antonio - were chosen for this survey because they presented "a broad overview of the population," Nayga said. The interviews were conducted during the spring of 2001. A random sample of 100 shoppers per city were asked a series of questions.

The particular food product chosen for this survey was ground beef, "because it's a major source of contaminants for foodborne disease" - the chance of contamination is greater than many other food products - and about 95 percent of Americans consume ground beef two or three times a week, Nayga said.

"Production and distribution systems in the supply chain must comply with consumer demand and regulatory issues such as food safety," Poghosyan wrote. "A secondary strategy could be to target and educate those consumers who are less willing to purchase irradiated beef products to increase exposure of the product, as well as to broaden the consumer base. Hence, the information derived from this study could help the supply chain respond to anticipated or expected market/demographic changes in the future."

Because of this research, Poghosyan, a resident of Armenia, was named the 2002 recipient of the Food Distribution Research Society's William Applebaum Memorial Scholarship for an outstanding master's degree thesis, according to Dr. John P. Nichols, professor and associate head in the department of agricultural economics at Texas A&M. "Part of this award is an invitation to attend the 2002 annual conference to be held Oct. 27-30 in Miami, Fla. This experience will greatly expand his involvement professionally and in his study of food marketing channels in Armenia," Nichols said.

Poghosyan earned a master's degree from Texas A&M in August as a participant in the USDA-funded Marketing Assistance Project in Yerevan, Armenia. He is currently a student in the doctoral program at the Armenian Agricultural Academy.

Texas A&M AgriLife Communications

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