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Electron Beams Can Make Raw Oysters Safer

May 2, 2013
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Zapping raw oysters with electron beams could significantly reduce human viral infections and save on health-care costs, according to a new study.

Researchers targeted two viruses that commonly infect oysters: the norovirus (they used murine norovirus as a surrogate for human norovirus) and the hepatatis A virus. Suresh Pillai, PhD, senior author of an article about the research that was published online April 12 in Applied and Environmental Microbiology, said the technique was safe and simple:

A salient feature of e-beam pasteurization technology is that it uses commercial electricity to generate the ionizing radiation that inactivates the viruses. It is a green technology because no chemicals are involved.

Dr. Pillai is director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University and a professor of microbiology. He was quoted in a news release from Texas A&M AgriLife, a part of the university system that deals with agriculture and life sciences.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of electron beams (as well as gamma rays and X-rays) “for the control of Vibrio bacteria and other foodborne microorganisms in or on fresh or frozen molluscan shellfish,” a category that includes oysters. But electron-beam pasteurization is not currently being used on commercial oysters sold in the United States.

Vibrio vulnificus bacteria, which raw shellfish frequently carry, have been found to be particularly sensitive to irradiation. Dr. Pillai and his fellow researchers wondered about viruses. “This is the first study that has attempted to quantify the reduction in infection risks of raw oysters contaminated with different levels of virus when pasteurized at FDA-approved doses,” he said.

The results: if a serving size of 12 oysters were contaminated with approximately 100 noroviruses and hepatitis A viruses, an electron-beam dose of 5 kilograys would reduce infection risks by 91 percent for hepatitis A and 26 percent for norovirus. (The FDA-mandated maximum dosage is 5.5 kilograys.)

So the protection would be incomplete but significant. According to the AgriLife article, virus infections from consumption of raw oysters carry estimated health-care costs of $200 million a year in the United States. So electron-beam irradiation could save a lot of money as well as a lot of misery.

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