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What is irradiation?
Irradiation is the process of treating food and other consumer products
with gamma rays, x-rays, or high voltage electrons to kill potential
harmful bacteria and parasites, delay sprouting, and increases shelf life.
Irradiation is also referred to as "ionizing radiation" because
it produces energy waves strong enough to dislodge electrons from atoms
and molecules, thereby converting them to electrically charged particles
called ions. Ionizing radiation reduces the number of disease
causing organisms in foods by disrupting their molecular structure and
killing them. Other terms commonly used to identify ionizing
irradiation are "cold pasteurization" and "irradiation
Which foods are approved for irradiation?
Since 1963, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have allowed the use of
irradiation on a small number of foods available commercially to the
- 1963 - FDA approved the use of irradiation to kill pests in wheat
- 1985 - FDA approved port irradiation to control parasites that cause
- 1986 - FDA approved the use of irradiation to delay maturation,
inhibit growth and disinfect certain foods, including vegetables and
- 1992 - USDA approved irradiation of raw poultry to kill salmonella
and other bacteria.
- 1997 - FDA approved irradiation of red meats.
Do we need Irradiation?
Recent reports of food borne illness from pathogens such as E.coli and
salmonella have highlighted the real need for heightened prevention and
control of contaminated food. Public health experts note that the
trend towards eating more fresh uncooked produce, combined with the
increase in imported foods, and less awareness about safe food handling
practices, have all contributed to the increased risk of food borne disease
in the US. As a result, many public health and government officials
have begun a campaign to promote the increased use of irradiation on our
Not all food authorities support irradiation. However, The Executive
Director of the Center for Science in Public Interest, Michael Jacobson,
criticized irradiation as a "high-tech" end-of-the-line solution
to contamination problems that can and should be addressed earlier.
And even the strongest proponents acknowledge that irradiation is
"... no match for bad sanitation and substandard
practices". Irradiation can only help control the contamination
once it occurs; it cannot prevent it.
PROS & CONS of Irradiation
Irradiation of food has been shown to kill and inactivate a number of
food borne pathogens such as E. Coli 0157:H7, Bacillus cereus, lostridium
botulinum, Listeria monocytogenes, salmonella, staphylococcus aureus,
Campylobacter jujuni, Cyclospora, and Toxoplasma gondii.
However, concerns about the safety, nutritional integrity, and cost of
irradiated foods still exist and the environmental impact of irradiation
technology and its long term effectiveness in dealing with the immense
problem of contaminated food remain controversial. A list of known pros and
cons of food irradiation follows:
Pathogen Elimination Pros & Cons:
- Irradiation can kill or substantially reduce the number of
potentially dangerous organisms in foods. Estimates range for 90
- Irradiation can kill insects and pests infesting foods such as
grains and flours without leaving chemical residues.
- Irradiation can be used to sterilize food for immune-compromised
individuals such as AIDS patients.
- Irradiation at recommended doses will not eradicate all pathogens.
The remaining organisms are by definition "radiation
resistant" and may create super strains of hard-to-kill
- Irradiation at current allowable levels is ineffective against
viruses such as the Norwalk virus found in seafood.
- Irradiation can only be used on a limited number of foods.
Fresh produce such as lettuce, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers turn
mushy and unpalatable. Thus, the risk from contaminated fresh
produce, a major carrier of food borne disease, cannot be fully
addressed by irradiation.
Chemical Changes in Foods Pros & Cons
- Irradiation has been deemed safe by various governmental agencies.
- Proponents of irradiation compare the changes in food caused by
irradiation (called radiolytic products) to products created by other
processes such as cooking or freeze-drying.
- Irradiation delays ripening and sprouting so food can be stored
Environmental Impact PROS & CONS
- Studies used to approve irradiation in food have been
flawed. Even the FDA acknowledges that the studies are
inadequate when reviewed singly.
- Critics contend that not enough is known about the potential
health effects of radiolytic products, particularly about radiolytic
products formed from pesticide residues on foods.
- Longer shelf lives may provide the most benefit to food producers;
consumers prefer authentically fresh foods.
- Proponents claim there is no potential for environmental impact
because the radioactive materials are fully enclosed and are returned
to the manufacturer for recycling or disposal.
- Proponents cite a good safety and regulatory record for existing
- Consumers remain wary of the potential for devastating accidents
presented by nuclear facilities
- If irradiation is adopted to the extent desired by its proponents,
hundreds more irradiation facilities (currently there are only several
used for commercial foods) would need to be built, increasing the risk
Nutrition of Irradiated Foods Pros & Cons
- Proponents argue that the nutrient losses from irradiation (such as
25% reduction in vitamin E, a 5-10% reduction in vitamin C, as well as
decreases in vitamin B1) are no worse than those produced by cooking
and other conventional treatments.
How can you tell if food has been irradiated?
have to carefully scrutinize food labels if they wish to avoid irradiated
products. Until recently, the FDA required labels on products
containing irradiated ingredients representing more than 90% of the total
product. These labels were to prominently display the radiation
symbol (called the "radura") accompanied by the words
"treated by irradiation," or "treated with radiation".
the US Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997 (FDAMA) has
drastically impaired consumer's ability to identify irradiation foods on
store shelves. The FDAMA Sec 306, effectively caused FDA to
amend its labeling requirements so that the required irradiation
disclosure statement on food packaging no longer need be any more
prominent than the declaration of ingredients.
FDAMA also required FDA
to seek public feedback about irradiation labeling regulations (the
comment period ended July 18, 1999 and FDA is now reviewing the comments
that were received). Consumers were asked whether the wording of the
current radiation disclosure statement should be revised and whether such
labeling requirements should expire at a specified date in the
future. Proponents of irradiation took this opportunity to advocate
that labeling be weakened or removed altogether.
What to do?
now there are many unanswered questions about the long term safety of
irradiation. Furthermore, irradiation can only be used on a limited
number of foods and does not address the larger problem of preventing
More comprehensive strategies such as Hazard Analysis
Critical Control Point (HACCP) programs can provide long-term prevention
and control of food borne illnesses. Other food sanitation
technologies such as high pressure, pulsed light, and ozone treatment are
currently under development and may provide benefits similar to
irradiation without the drawbacks.
We would suggest that you avoid
using irradiated products whenever possible.
Support prominent labeling
of irradiated foods - Let your congressman know that consumers have a
right to know which foods have been irradiated.
food handling in your own home. See Safe
Food Handling article.
Stores that do not
carry Irradiated food:
Whole Foods Markets
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