Multi-stakeholder, Post-mortems

Food Irradiation and Responsible Innovation

Hilary Sutcliffe

15 Jan 2017

Sometimes new technologies are enthusiastically taken up by both business and society, while others fail to thrive.  Sometimes that failure is due to a technical deficiency, in other cases there may be safety concerns or unwanted environmental or social impacts, and others just don’t capture the public imagination.


On occasion, safety or efficacy concerns are overcome; changing circumstances mean that the rationale for the technology becomes more compelling or we all just get more familiar with it and what used to arouse strong feelings now doesn’t and the technology is gradually adopted.


This multi-stakeholder 'Post-mortem' style initiative was a short pilot initiative which evaluated the technology and its introduction, exploring what went wrong, what has changed and whether the changed circumstances now would warrant a review of its potential.   We initiated it and got funding to explore a multi-stakeholder methodology which may be used for other technology evaluations and Pre-and Post-mortem methods.

Is Food Irradiation worth revisiting?


The technology of Food Irradiation was developed in the 1960’s and showed great promise. But because of safety and human health concerns, questions about the unknown impact of the treatment on food and the unwanted associations between radiation and food, the technology never took off.


However, in recent years an increased focus on the need to reduce waste; the safe use of the product outside Europe and the competitiveness of the food sector has lead to a desire by some stakeholders for its use to be reconsidered.  It was also identified as a ‘false positive’ in the recent European Environment Agency report Late Lessons from Early Warnings – that means that the precautionary approach taken with regard to the public health and safety of the technology has been subsequently proven to be unnecessary.


As part of our work exploring the introduction of new technologies responsibly it appeared that Food Irradiation was an interesting case study with which to consider the issues of responsible innovation and public involvement. In consultation with stakeholders in waste, food borne illness, retail and the FI industry we felt that, though it was controversial, it may provide interesting lessons and could conceivably be a technology which does have a role in current food preparation.


We proposed holding a multi-stakeholder workshop in order to better understand the issues and collectively consider if further exploration of the possible contribution Food Irradiation may make, if any, to the reduction of waste, pesticide reduction and human health.


The meeting was held in London, on Thursday 23rd May 2013 at the offices of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, who also funded the initiative.

Findings of the meeting


Findings of the meeting area available here


If you would like to know more about this project, the methodology we used or the outputs, please contact

Why we were involved


Nothing came of this initiative, as there was not further funding on Food Irradiation specifically.  However attendees were universally complimentary about the process and methodology and felt it provided a very useful approach to building confidence in innovative technologies. 


It was our recent assessment of public dialogues, juxtaposed with negatives views from some stakeholders about the public’s supposedly irrational view of technology which stimulated our interest in Food Irradiation. Statements such as ‘it may save the environment, but they’re irrational about technologies like this”, or “the public are frightened of radiation and nothing will change their mind’, seemed at odds with the thoughtful, common sense views we saw time and time again in consultations on areas such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology and stem cells that we have analysed to understand what may constitute ‘Responsible Innovation’.


We felt that the public was potentially being misrepresented and that if a technology had a clear and compelling value to society and to them as individuals, that they should be given a chance to positively choose or reject it rather than have others do this on their behalf; based on speculation and opinions voiced many decades ago when the technology was in its infancy.


It also resonated with our work on Responsible Research and Innovation – we felt that Food Irradiation may be a useful case study for the responsible development and use of technology – ie one which is focused on social benefit, used safely, with effective oversight, in which potential and actual social, ethical and environmental impacts had been considered and in which the public and other stakeholders had been involved in decision making processes.

Full details of attendees and slides of presenters


Full details of attendees and slides of presenters are available here.


They were:


Steffen Foss Hansen - Technical University of Denmark, co-author of Late Lessons from Early Warnings


David Fell, Brook Lyndhurst - Presenting findings of Food Standards Agency Public Attitudes to Emerging Tech - with a particular focus on the behavioural science aspects.


Andrew Parry - WRAP the independent organisation focus on Waste Recycling & Prevention, presenting on the serious problems related to food waste.


Chris Thomas - Food Standards Agency, presenting their concerns about food borne illness in the UK.  

Potential benefits & risks - a summary


As some of the participants had little or no knowledge of Food Irradiation (including Hilary prior to the research for the event), an outline briefing note was prepared which participants were encouraged to read prior to their attendance.  The content of the paper is linked to the issues of concern which arise from the Principles for Responsible Innovation.  This paper was prepared by Hilary, all mistakes, misunderstandings and misquotes are hers alone.  Apologies, a bibliography is not available.

The note is in four sections:

  • An outline of the basics of Food Irradiation, how it works, how it may be applied and where it is used currently
  • Exploration of the proposed benefits of the different types of irradiation effects which correlate to increased irradiation doses
  • Exploration of the current issues of concern and the risks of irradiation in use.
  • Hilary’s observations based on her research.

This short paper is available here