Food Irradiation

Food irradiation is a method of treating food in order to make it safer to eat and have a longer shelf life. This process is not very different from other treatments such as pesticide application, canning, freezing and drying. The end result is that the growth of disease-causing microorganismns or those that cause spoilage are slowed or are eliminated altogether. This makes food safer and also keeps it fresh longer.

Did you know???
About 6.5 to 33 million cases of foodborne illness are estimated to occur
annually in the United States, with about 9,000 deaths. Because foods may
contain microbiological hazards, any mishandling including improper cooking
can result in foodborne illness. E Coli alone is estimated to effect 7,000 to
20,000 Americans yearly at a cost of $174.3 to $467.7 million.

Food irradiated by exposing it to the gamma rays of a radioisotope -- one that is widely used is cobalt-60. The energy from the gamma ray passing through the food is enough to destroy many disease-causing bacteria as well as those that cause food to spoil, but is not strong enough to change the quality, flavor or texture of the food. It is important to keep in mind that the food never comes in contact with the radioisotope and is never at risk of becoming radioactive.

The FDA has approved the irradiation of several food catagories, but irradiation is most widely used on spices, herbs and dehydrated vegetables. Since these food items are grown in or on the ground it is clear to see that they are at risk for being exposed to naturally occuring pests such as bacterias, molds, fungi, insects, and rodents. It is impossible to harvest and package these items without having some contamination from these naturally occuring pathogens. Irradiation of this material can help to ensure that the final product you purchase is pest free.

Some meats are irradiated. Pork, for example, is irradiated to control the trichina parasite that resides in the muscle tissue of some pigs. Poultry is irradiated to eliminate the chance of foodborne illness due to bacterial contamination.

Did you know???
According to the Department of Agriculture, Salmonella and other bacteria
contaminate as much as 40 percent of all raw poultry.

Irradiation of certain foods also have additional benefits. Since the energy passing through the food can disrupt cellular processes (this is the mechanism for destroying microorganisms) it also can halt the cellular processes that lead to the sprouting or ripening of foods. Potatoes and onions are irradiated to retard their sprouting. Fruits and vegetables are irradiated to slow down the ripening process. In this way, delicate fruits won't reach their peak ripeness before they arrive at the supermarket.

Food irradiation sounds like a wonderful use of nuclear chemistry principles. Although this process is routinely used in Europe, Canada, and Mexico, the United States has been a little more hesitant to adopt food irradiation. This is due mainly to the public's perceived fear and limited understanding of nuclear science. For example, although the FDA has approved the irradiation of poultry, the industry hesistates to adopt the process because they are afraid of a negative response from consumers. With recent public education, however; many people are learning to appreciate and value it's usefullness.

You Tell Us :
Go to your local grocery store and search for foods labeled with
the international symbol for irradiation. After completing your search,
contact the store manager and find out how many irradiated products are
being offered to the public.

To learn more about food irradiation you can:

read a publication by the United States Department of Agriculture called Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Food Irradiation

check out the following websites: