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.
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
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
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
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.
To learn more about food irradiation you can: