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Protecting Your Chile from Microorganisms: Irradiation and ETO

From harvest to table, chiles can have a long journey to travel. Proper handling and storage is necessary every step of the way to ensure food safety. Microorganisms, including bacteria and mold, can grow even in dried and ground spices. These microscopic invaders might come from the soil when the plants are harvested or be introduced during processing and storage from other contaminants.

However they ended up in a chile, it’s important that they not stay there. Microorganism growth can cause illness in some cases, and it will affect the flavor of the finished product. Fortunately, there are treatments available to inhibit bacterial and fungal growth and protect the flavor and food safety of your chiles.

Two Methods of Protection

In the US, there are two FDA-approved methods of treating microbial growth in spices, including chile powders and flakes: Irradiation and ETO fumigation.

Of the two, ETO fumigation is the older method. It’s been in use since the 1960s, when it was discovered that ethylene oxide gas could be used as an effective poison against microorganisms without leaving behind a toxic residue on whatever the microbes were living in. Aside from its use on foodstuff, ETO is also used to sterilize medical equipment and instruments.

Irradiation, on the other hand, is a somewhat newer technology, gaining popularity in the 1980s. It uses a blast of short-frequency gamma rays to kill microbes. As an added bonus, any microbes that might happen to survive the treatment will be sterilized and prevented from multiplying – a feature not true of ETO fumigation – which makes irradiation extremely effective for long-term storage of food stuff.

What’s This Mean to You?

From a consumer standpoint, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between ETO-treated and irradiated chile. There are just a few things to keep in mind:

  • By law, irradiated foods must be labeled. ETO-treated foods do not need to be labeled. If you buy a commercial product that isn’t labeled, the odds are good that it was probably treated with ETO.
  • ETO fumigation requires particular packaging requirements for chemical penetration and aeration. There are no packaging requirements needed for irradiation, making it a more flexible option in some cases.
  • ETO treatments are popular in the US but are not approved in the European Union. Likewise, laws pertaining to treatment and labeling of food varies from one country to the next.
  • At high concentrations, irradiation can affect the taste of certain foods, but the effects vary from one food to the next.

For the purposes of a commercial kitchen, the exact details of a spice’s treatment are less important than the end effect. Irradiation and chemical treatments sound intimidating, but they’re doing an important job in preserving the safety and flavor of your food.

If you have any questions about the treatments used on Chile Guy products, give us a call! I’ll be happy to let you know all about the food safety techniques employed on all of our chile powders, flakes and more!


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