Boxes of strawberries move on a conveyor belt into a room in which no persons dare enter. As they pass by a large machine, radiation kills some of the microorganisms on them. Now the berries, without any chemical preservatives, will have a additional few weeks of shelf life.

A major controversy swirls around the new processing technique: Should there be a label on the package informing consumers that the food has been irradiated?

The resolution of this question could determine whether irradiation becomes a rich new industry or a stillbirth. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed rules that would permit the irradiation of fresh produce and other foods to reduce spoilage. But its proposal doesn't require special labels on retail packages.

Labeling is a critical issue because there is strong evidence that many consumers won't buy food they know has been irradiated. In a consumer survey done by the National Pork Producers Council, 52% of the respondents said they had a "major concern" when they saw the word irradiated"; 20% had a "minor concern." Only 13% had no opinion. "Consumers feel that if you irradiate food it's not healthful," says Doyle Talkington, govrnment affairs administrator of the council.

Oddly, two of the leading irradiation companies split on the issue of labeling. Radiation Technology Inc (see INC., August 1983, page 23), which derives a large percentage of its near $3 million in sales from the export of irradiated food, opposes a special label. "There's a body of people, who if they hear the term radiation, start thinking of Three Mile Island and nuclear bombs," says George Sadek, the company's vice-president.

Neutron Products Inc., of Dickerson, Md., argues that labels will enable the industry to meet consumer fears about irradiation in an open manner. "I have yet to meet a consumer who doesn't want to know [if food has been irradiated], and I'm talking about consumers who want to buy irradiated food," says Jack Ransohoff, the company president. "If it takes some public education, well, that's some of the cost of accuracy and honesty."