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IAEA Supports a Revival of Cuba's Food Irradiation Services

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(Video: A. Silva and M. Klingenboeck/IAEA)

Cuba’s fruit exports are set to increase with the reinstatement of former food irradiation capacities on the island. The production of fresh fruits is of considerable importance to the country, not only for domestic consumption, but also as an export commodity. The production of mango, guava, avocado and other locally-grown fruits has been traditionally affected by losses caused by pests, diseases and weak post-harvest management practices.

Through an IAEA technical cooperation project, Cuban experts installed radioactive sources in mid-February 2019 at the country’s long-dormant Food Irradiation Plant, in an effort to revive food irradiation services. As a method for preservation, food irradiation technology presents a safe and sterile alternative to conventional techniques, such as heating, freezing and refrigeration or treatment of the food with chemicals.

“Food can be irradiated to help minimize the risk of food-borne illnesses or to maintain post-harvest product quality, making it possible to keep food longer, while at the same time ensuring a higher level of food safety and quality,” said Carl Blackburn, Food Irradiation Specialist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “Food irradiation supports sustainable food production by virtue of its ability to control spoilage, food-borne pathogenic micro-organisms and insect pests without significantly affecting taste or other sensory attributes of the food.”

Cuba shares a long history of cooperation with the Agency. In the 1970s, the IAEA supported the development of capacities and the delivery of equipment needed to establish food irradiation services in the country.

Irradiation technology in Cuba has historically been carried out by three institutions. Supplementing the efforts of the Food Industry Research Institute in Havana, the National Centre for Plant and Animal Health (CENSA) was established in 1969 and had the capacity to conduct irradiation on a pilot scale until 2009, when technical challenges interrupted their services. The Centre of Applied Technologies and Nuclear Development (CEADEN) was established in 1987 and conducted irradiation on a laboratory scale until, similarly, the age of the Centre’s equipment brought the work of the research irradiator to a halt.

In 2012, the Government of Cuba announced the revitalisation of its irradiation technology capacities as a national priority, underscoring the importance of irradiation for the country’s food security, its access to international export markets and its health services.

Meanwhile, the IAEA supported expert missions, training courses and the delivery of critical equipment, which led to the restoration – in cooperation with the Nuclear Energy and Advanced Technologies Agency (AENTA) – of CEADEN’s research irradiator in 2017, and, most recently, to the complete refurbishment of the Food Industry Research Institute’s food irradiation plant in February 2019, following the delivery and installation of the radioactive sources.

The Food Irradiation Plant is now a multi-purpose irradiation facility which can also provide a number of new services, beyond food irradiation. These services, provided on an on-demand basis, are expected to include industrial processing, radiation-sterilization and decontamination services, the treatment of persistent pollutants and the production of medical ‘smart materials,’ such as hydrogel dressing.

The reinstatement of Cuba’s food irradiation capacities is also expected to increase import substitution – the process of replacing foreign imports with domestic production – increasing food security and reducing the costs associated with importation.   

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