(April 1) Irradiation continues to be the technology with potential — potential for longer shelf life, potential for new imports, potential for improved pest control.

New proposed rules published in the Federal Register may help the technology live up to its reputation. But irradiation also is a hot topic that is sure to draw plenty of reaction before the comment deadline of April 15.

In fact, so much commentary is expected that the deadline could be extended by 60 days.

The latest proposal, issued March 15, supplements one from May 26, 2000, in which the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed a framework for using irradiation as an phytosanitary treatment for imports. The USDA also proposed methods for treatment of fruit flies and the mango seed weevil in imports. The new plan came out of comments on that proposal.

It also proposes adding phosphor-based indicators to cartons to show that irradiation has taken place; the indicators would be readable by a light-pen device that detects fluorescence.

Electron beam technology has eliminated the need for radioactive materials, which would seem to increase consumer acceptance, given some educational efforts.

If these new rules can indeed combine with improved technology, the benefits could be substantial. Tropical products that previously couldn’t make the trip or pass inspection because of pest problems and inability to withstand heat treatments could make their way to U.S. consumers. And they could do it without posing a pest threat to U.S. agriculture.

Wil Williams, spokesman for Surebeam Corp., San Diego, says producers of those products could cut back significantly on product lost to spoilage, reducing the need to expand acreage at the expense of the environment.

He also points out that wider availability could reduce fruit smuggling by tourists.

If the USDA’s science is sound in this matter, the produce and retail industries would be in a good position to benefit. If it’s not, then more work needs to be done.

Either way, now is the time to voice concerns about — and support for — the proposal.