I've been told by many that you haven't experienced a mango until you've had one from India. But until this week, you'd have had to travel pretty far to get one.
Indian mangoes were barred from the U.S. because they can harbor an insect pest - the mango seed weevil. And because those evil weevils aren't found in the United States, we wisely didn't let any of the possibly infested Indian mangoes in.
The pest is hard to get at - its larvae burrow into the developing mango and take up residence in the seed. They complete their life-cycle there, then find their way out through the flesh of the fruit, damaging it as they go. Because they live inside the fruit, pesticides or other treatments applied externally won't help.
Thanks to modern technology, the first shipments of Indian mangoes arrived this week, with much fanfare.
This has been in the works for five years, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) ruled that irradiation to kill the weevil would make Indian mangoes (as well as those from other tropical areas such as Hawaii and Central America) safe for import to the U.S. mainland, thus providing a huge new market for these fruits.
So no, the developing urban legend, that we traded nuclear secrets for good mangoes isn't exactly true. The mango agreement was just amended to a broader treaty involving nuclear cooperation.
And to say we are going to be "nuking" the mangoes makes it sound dangerous. It is entirely safe.
Irradiation not only kills the weevils, it also is effective against a wide variety of other pests such as fruit flies. There are several benefits of using irradiation as a sanitizing process. It reduces the need for insecticides and leaves no residues on or in the fruits. Further, irradiated mangoes and other fruits (e.g., strawberries) typically have their ripening process slowed somewhat, which means they have longer shelf lives and thus can likely withstand the rigors of shipping and storage without being damaged.
The only drawback to using irradiation for sanitizing fruits - or indeed for any of a number of potential uses - is that many people are afraid of it. But their fears are unfounded. Irradiation does not generate nuclear wastes - as some activists would have us believe - nor does it produce toxic compounds in foods. Such fear-mongering has slowed the adoption of irradiation for other approved foods - ground beef and poultry, for example - and left the population unnecessarily vulnerable to foodborne illnesses.
Irradiation facilities do not endanger either workers or the communities in which they're located. Irradiated Indian mangoes are just the first items from a cornucopia of tropical fruits that have not been available to American consumers because of concerns about pest importation. And one thing we do know is that Americans should be adding more fruits to their diets. Let's hope a greater variety of imported fruits will help achieve this goal in a most delicious way.