Is Food Irradiation Safe?
It seems like every time we turn on the news, there is another story about an outbreak of food poisoning somewhere in the country. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), food-borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year.
To help combat this issue, the CDC, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, and many other health and safety experts have endorsed food irradiation, which promises to reduce significantly the risk of food-borne illness from Salmonella, E coli, and other dangerous pathogens that may be lurking in our produce or meat. But is food irradiation safe?
What is Food Irradiation?
Food irradiation destroys disease-causing microorganisms and insect invaders by briefly exposing them to large doses of ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays or electron beams, which disrupts and destroys the organism’s DNA. Irradiation does not make the food radioactive, anymore than an xray makes you radioactive or an airport luggage screener causes your baggage to glow.
In addition to preventing disease, irradiation reduces spoilage bacteria, insects and parasites, and in certain fruits and vegetables it inhibits sprouting and delays ripening. For example, irradiated strawberries stay unspoiled up to three weeks, versus three to five days for untreated berries.
Irradiation is not a substitute for proper food manufacturing and handling procedures. But the process, especially when used to treat meat and poultry products, can kill harmful bacteria, greatly reducing any potential hazards.
Which Food is Irradiated?
The FDA has approved irradiation of meat and poultry and allows its use for a variety of other foods, including fresh fruits and vegetables, and spices. However, because of consumer perceptions, irradiation has largely been restricted to spices and other dried vegetable products.
Federal rules require irradiated foods to be labeled with the “radura” symbol to distinguish them from non-irradiated foods. While any food you buy in the supermarket will be labeled, there are no requirements for restaurants, cafeterias, or similar food sources.
Is it Safe?
Food irradiation remains a very controversial topic. There have been concerns raised by some groups that the chemical products created in the food during the irradiation process may be harmful. However, there is no current scientific evidence to support this claim, and many of these chemicals are the same or similar to those created during other food processing techniques, such as cooking or canning.
There can be a small loss of nutrients with irradiated foods, but usually no more so than with other food processing methods And, if knowing that your produce is safe causes you to eat more of it, this effect may be outweighed.
Critics also point out that it may be more cost-effective, and safer, to clean up the problems with the food industry that are causing these contamination problems in the first place. We’re all for that. But there is always risk of contamination in food production, and it only takes one bad processor to cause a serious outbreak.
Irradiation is allowed in nearly 40 countries and is endorsed by many leading health organizations. The process has been around for decades and the scientific evidence has not shown any ill-effects to humans from eating irradiated foods. With 5,000 estimated food-borne illness deaths per year, including a large percentage who are children, is not having irradiation safe?
Some of the information in this article comes courtesy of the U.S. Food & Drug Administration
For more information on food irradiation, take a look at the CDC’s Food Irradiation FAQs.