Safety under the rays 

M Ramesh Chennai | Updated on November 17, 2014

Ever wondered how the insect got inside the mango seed or the worms in a sealed packet of wheat flour?  Well, they were born there. The mother laid eggs on the mango flowers, or on the flour before it was packed.

The food we consume has these unwanted organic matters in lots, not to speak of microbes. This is also why fruits and vegetables rot.

The way to combat this menace is, of course, to kill them. The traditional Indian method has been to sun-dry everything. We even put up beds on the roofs to get rid of the bugs.

However, a more modern way is to irradiate stuff to sterilise them.

Providing irradiation services is good business and the Board of Radiation & Isotope Technology (BRIT), part of the Department of Atomic Energy, is trying to develop entrepreneurs who would take up this business.

India has 15 such irradiation facilities today–woefully inadequate for a country of its size.

Three of the 15 are owned by BRIT, which operates them on not-for-profit basis. These three are reference plants for high, medium and low dose radiation – high for sterilisation of medicines and syringes, medium for the likes of spices, pet feed and cosmetics and low for onion, potatoes, to prevent them from sprouting.

The other 12 are owned by industries and entrepreneurs. Dr A K Kohli, Chief Executive of BRIT, says that the Board is working towards raising the number to at least 50 by 2020. BRIT also provides radio-active isotopes for industrial applications such as non-destructive testing, testing for leaks in pipes and cracks in columns and radio-medicine. The Board earns Rs 80 crore a year selling these, again, on not-for-profit basis.

Setting up irradiation facilities for third party use is good business, says Dr Kohli. It seems so, going by the experience of Universal Medicare Ltd, which owns two such facilities in Gujarat. Eight years back, the company set up its first unit of a capacity of 1,000 KCi (kilo curies, which is a measure of radiation) at a cost of Rs 6 crore. “Twenty-five per cent for our own use, and 75 per cent for outsiders,” says Jagdish Patel, Managing Director of Universal Medicare. Today, the business fetches profits of Rs 5-6 crore a year, Patel told Business Line. Two months ago, Patel started his second unit, in Gujarat.

Radio-active substances ‘decay’, or lose their power, about 1 per cent a month. So these units will have to keep adding ‘pencils’ (in which form isotopes such as Cobalt 60 or Iridium 192 are supplied). It costs Rs 65 lakh for 100 KCi.

In future, food safety requirements will make irradiation mandatory, observes Dr Kohli. Exports of foods to the developed countries will surely require irradiation and the mangoes that go to the US first pass through the rays. Irradiation also enhances shelf-life of foods, so farmers can store them till they get better prices. “You can process 20 tonnes of onions per hour and it will cost 20 paise per kg,” Dr Kohli said.

Published on November 17, 2014

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