Litchi becomes success story of food irradiation in India

After successfully using irradiation technology to promote international trade of mangoes through pest dis-infestation, the Indian nuclear scientists have now succeeded in increasing the shelf life of the juicy fruit of Lychee.

In India, Lychee is primarily grown in the states of Bihar, Tripura, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Haryana. Bihar is the largest Lychee producing state in India by contributing a whopping 74 per cent to the total production. India and China account for 91 per cent of the world’s total Lychee production but it is mainly marketed locally, owing to the short cultivation period (3-4 weeks) and shelf life.

Since Lychee production is source of livelihood for many farmers, Food Science and Safety Section of Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has been working on improving the food irradiation facilities in India to reduce post-harvest losses, to increase shelf life and to ensure food safety.

Dr. S Gautam is heading the Food Science and Safety Section of BARC, contends that irradiation as a phytosanitary treatment has emerged as a global solution. India has been a late comer in the field but with the aid of the technology it has been able to increase its Mango exports manifold. In 2007 the exports of Mango, also known as the King of the Fruits, was 157 metric tonnes, in 2016 it increased to 750 metric tonnes and in 2017 it was 1150 metric tonnes.

“Food Irradiation is the solution to reduce cost of exported fruits due to extended shelf life. It also addressed the issues of fungal contamination during storage,” Dr. Gautam told Nuclear Asia before elaborating about the success story about the shelf-life extension of Lychee.

“Domestic trade and export of Lychee has been an issue due to poor shelf life. Due to the shelf life of Lychee has been extended to 60 days at 4-6 degree Celsius,” Dr. Gautam added. Earlier the shelf life of Lychee at ambient temperature (26 degree Celsius) has been less than 72 hours. Post-harvest losses have been as high as 50 per cent. Following the irradiation the fruit maintains its natural pinkish-red colour and maintains its taste and nutritional properties. Besides, the irradiated Lychee was also found to be a rich source of anti-oxidants, capable of protecting the cell and DNA from radiation-induced damage.

In irradiation, food products are subjected to a low dosage of radiation to treat them for germs and insects, increasing their longevity and shelf life. After successfully testing the technology, India is looking to capture the export market for Lychee, by exporting the fruit to the developed countries.

India, presently, has 15 irradiation plants and have been using the technology for preparing food for immune compromised patient, for people affected by natural calamities, military rations and other target groups. More than 60 countries, including the US and China have approved radiation processing of over 100 food items. The number of irradiation centres in India continue to be abysmal considering food items like fruits, vegetables, meat, cereals, pulses and floriculture worth around Rs. 250,000 crore are lost every year in the country.