Episode 122: January 11, 2011
by Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N.
In 2008, after thousands were sickened by contaminated spinach and lettuce, the FDA decided to allow the use of irradiation to kill harmful micro-organisms in fresh spinach and lettuce, making these products safer for consumers. The use of ionizing radiation in the food supply is not new. But the ruling reignited a debate over whether irradiated food is safe.
Why is Food Irradiated?
Food irradiation has two main purposes:
to reduce the risk of food-borne illness and
to retard spoilage of foods.
What Is Irradiation?
Irradiation, also known as ionizing radiation, involves exposing foods to controlled doses of radiation from x-rays, electron beams, or gamma rays. At very low doses, irradiation can kill insects and parasites. It also disrupts enzymatic activities that cause food to ripen or sprout. At higher doses, irradiation can kill pathogenic bacteria, including E. coli, salmonella, and campylobacter.
As with any form of food processing, including freezing, pasteurization, cooking, or even storage, irradiation does result in some loss of nutritional value. But irradiation does not “kill” all the vitamins in a food. And because no heat is involved, the taste, texture, and appearance of foods are largely unchanged. In blind taste tests, consumers were unable to tell the difference between irradiated and non-irradiated foods.
What are the 3 Benefits of Irradiation?
Food irradiation offers at least three advantages:
Irradiation would make the food supply safer. Every year millions are sickened and thousands die from food-borne illness. In recent years, we’ve seen huge outbreaks and recalls caused by contaminated eggs, peanut butter, jalapeno peppers, and bagged spinach and lettuce.
Many argue that we could reduce the number and certainly the magnitude of these outbreaks by moving away from our industrial-scale food production and distribution system. Others argue that it’s simply not practical or economically feasible to produce the nation’s (or the world’s) food supply on small-scale, local farms. Whichever side of that argument you’re on, however, food irradiation definitely makes the current food supply safer.
Irradiation could reduce loss and waste. According to the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization, a heartbreaking 25% of all the food that is harvested around the world ends up being lost to insects, bacteria, and spoilage. Irradiation can kill bugs and bacteria and keep food from rotting before it can be used.
Irradiation can reduce the use of harmful chemicals. Short of irradiation, the best way to protect food from pests and spoilage is fumigation it with chemicals, many of which are harmful to the environment.
What are the Potential Problems with Food Irradiation?
Though irradiation may help to reduce potential harm from an imperfect system, it does not relieve food producers of any other food safety requirements.
Those opposed to food irradiation have several concerns, some of which are more legitimate than others.
Irradiation cannot be used to hide rotten food. Although irradiation can forestall spoilage, it cannot be used to trick you into eating spoiled food. Once food has started to spoil, there’s nothing about the irradiation process that can cover that up.
Irradiation does not make a food radioactive. Although facilities that perform irradiation have to follow strict safety procedures to ensure that workers are protected from harmful exposure and that waste is properly disposed of, there is no chance that irradiated food will be radioactive.
Irradiation may allow food producers to be sloppier. Opponents argue that irradiation to remove bacteria takes the pressure off of food producers to maintain adequate sanitation and quality standards—and is a band-aid for a “broken” food systemIrradiation does not relieve food producers of any other food safety requirements and may help to reduce potential harm from an imperfect system.
Is Irradiated Food Safe?
Some worry that there just hasn’t been enough research to establish the safety of food irradiation. If you research the controversy on the Internet, you’ll come across stories about cats that developed grave medical problems after eating irradiated cat food. However, this seems to be an isolated incident and there are a lot of questions about whether the radiation really had anything to do with it.
The U.S. FDA and USDA have endorsed irradiation, citing over 50 years’ worth of research attesting to its safety. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t find this terribly reassuring because they feel that our governmental regulators are unduly influenced by and sympathetic to industry and business interests.
I don’t want to paint our regulators with too broad a brush, but I have to agree that there is a rather unsavory revolving door between the regulators and the business they regulate. And I have observed that in situations where the evidence is incomplete or inconsistent—such as the safety of BPA in food packaging or the use of hormones or antibiotics in livestock—where you might think that a public health agency would err on the side of caution, the FDA and USDA often seem to err on the side of commercial interests.
However, for what it’s worth, the World Health Organization and the European Union (both of which tend to be more cautious about these things than the U.S. regulatory agencies) have both embraced food irradiation as safe and beneficial, even necessary.
Below, you’ll find links to sources that are both in support of and opposed to irradiation. Having taken a look at the arguments for both sides, my own personal take is that the benefits outweigh the potential dangers. But obviously, you may come to a different conclusion.
Which Foods are Likely to Be Irradiated?
With a few exceptions, irradiation is not widely used in the U.S. Most dried herbs and spices are now irradiated—however, this means that they are much less likely to be chemically treated to prevent pests. Other foods approved for treatment with irradiation include fresh meat, poultry, fresh fruits and vegetables, and wheat flour.
How Can You Avoid Irradiated Food?
Current labeling laws require that foods that have been irradiated must be labeled as “irradiated” or “treated with irradiation” either on the package itself or in the case of foods that are sold in bulk, like produce, on the accompanying displays. You’ll usually also see the international symbol for irradiation, a circular emblem with a plant in the center. Irradiated meats that are used as ingredients in other products, such as sausages, must be identified as irradiated on the ingredient list.
However, there are some cases where irradiated food will not be identified. Restaurants, delis, and other food service operators are not required to notify you that they’re using irradiated ingredients, for example. And even though the spices in packaged foods are almost certainly irradiated, you won’t see the irradiation symbol on those packages.
One simple way to avoid irradiated food is to buy organic foods. Organic standards do not permit the use of irradiation. But whether you go out of your way to buy irradiated foods or go out of your way to avoid them, it’s still necessary to wash fruits and vegetables and observe safe handling procedures like keeping foods chilled and heating them to proper temperatures.
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