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FOOD IRRADIATION – IS IT SAFE?

Food safety is a subject of growing importance to consumers. There were outbreaks of food-borne illness through contaminated products such as ground beef and unpasteurised fruit juices, while in some cases it may be life-threatening. New technologies were needed to combat these food-borne illnesses.

“The increasing widespread use of irradiation of ground beef in the U.S. since early 2000 had contributed significantly to the reduction of foodborne illness caused by this pathogen. (The record shows that over 10,000 metric tons of irradiated ground beef with clear labeling were sold in supermarkets (and other retail outlets) all over the U.S. in 2003.)  In fact, no illness or death caused by E. coli 0157:H7 was reported from consumption of irradiated ground beef after such a product was offered for sale starting mid-2000.”  Paisan Loaharanu, Executive Director, International Council on Food Irradiation and Adjunct Professor of Food Safety, Michigan State University, East Lansing, Michigan.(Food Irradiation Updates, Mar 2006) 

Picture of radura   What is food irradiation?

Food irradiation is a process whereby food is exposed to defined levels of ionising radiation for a limited time period. Ionising radiation can be produced by electronic or radioactive sources.       

Process of Irradiation

 A picture of irradiation facility

In food irradiation, a radioactive form of the element cobalt (Cobalt 60) or cesium (Cesium 137) is used. They give off gamma rays which can penetrate foods to a depth of several feet. These radioactive substances do not make anything around them radioactive as they do not give off neutrons.  

Radioactive substances emit gamma rays all the time. When not in use, the radioactive “source” is stored down in a pool of water which absorbs the radiation harmlessly and completely. To irradiate food or some other product, the source is pulled up out of the water into a chamber with massive concrete walls that keep any rays from escaping. Medical products or foods to be irradiated are brought into the chamber, and are exposed to the rays for a defined period of time. After it is used, the source is returned to the water tank.                                   

Click here* to view a short clip on irradiation of frozen chicken. (CNN Interactive, 25 Nov 1997)

*Viewable by Quicktime player.

Benefits of food irradiation

  • to reduce the levels of harmful or spoilage microorganisms
  • to delay the onset of natural processes such as ripening, sprouting or germination in some fruits or vegetables
  • to kill some insects or pests
  • extended shelf life of some products
  • less need for some additives, such as preservatives and antioxidants
  • reduced need for toxic chemical treatments, such as those used to kill bacteria found in some spices

Irradiated food products     Spices that are permitted for irradiation
 

The Facts…

  • Does irradiation process create products hazardous to health?

Irradiation is a “cold” process that gives off little heat, also known as “cold pasterisation”. The foods can be irradiated within their packaging and remain protected against contamination until opened by users. This process interferes with bacterial genetics, so the contaminating organism can no longer survive or multiply. Although chemicals called radiolytic products are created when food is irradiated, FDA has found them to pose no health hazard. In fact, the same kinds of products are formed when food is cooked.

    ·      Will eating irradiated food make me glow in the dark?

There is a misconception of the relation of nuclear energy and radiation energy used in food irradiation. There are no nuclear fuels used in radiation processing. Nuclear fuels are used in nuclear power plants to generate steam that, in turn, generates electricity. The radioactive materials used in radiation processing have energies much lower than nuclear fuels and cannot cause chain reactions or “melt-down,” or even induce radioactivity in other substances.

  • Will the process of irradiation destroy the vitamins and minerals present in the foods?

Nutritional assessments showed that the irradiation process was no more destructive to nutrients than other processes then being used commercially. It was also demonstrated that there were no toxic products formed in quantities that would be hazardous to the health and well-being of consumers.

  • Is it safe for the workers and the environment?

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration monitor the facilities regularly to assure that workers are completely safe. Many radiation processing facilities do not even use radioactive materials. The radiation is generated by machines that are turned off when not in use. In short, the radiation processing industry is a safe industry that should not be feared or rejected.

 

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The bottom line is that consumers should have the opportunity to choose irradiated foods if they wish, rather than be denied that right because of unsupported claims made by groups who claim to represent consumers but may only represent a small minority of consumers with concerns about all new technologies, not just food irradiation.

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References

September 13, 2006 Posted by | Food | 7 Comments