Irradiation of food is the application of ionizing radiation and according to to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is a technology that improves the safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects.
The government caveat is that like pasteurizing milk and canning fruits and vegetables, irradiation can make food safer for the consumer and does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food.
There are three sources of radiation approved for use on foods:
- Gamma rays are emitted from radioactive forms of the element cobalt (Cobalt 60) or of the element cesium (Cesium 137).
Gamma radiation is used routinely to sterilize medical, dental and household products and is also used for the radiation treatment of cancer.
- X-rays are produced by reflecting a high-energy stream of electrons off a target substance (usually one of the heavy metals) into food. X-rays are also widely used in medicine and industry to produce images of internal structures.
- Electron beam (or e-beam) is similar to X-rays and is a stream of high-energy electrons propelled from an electron accelerator
What Foods Have Been Approved for Irradiation?
The FDA has approved a variety of foods for irradiation in the United States including:
- Beef and Pork
- Crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab)
- Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
- Lettuce and Spinach
- Molluscan Shellfish (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops)
- Seeds for Sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts)
- Shell Eggs
- Spices and Seasonings
Irradiation is said to prevent food borne illnesses, help with preservation, control insects, and help sterilize. Granted, with large monolithic companies handling millions of pounds of food annually, there is an inherent risk of bacteria and other problems we should be concerned with. If you eat supermarket beef, it is important not to get sick.
How Will You Know if Your Food Has Been Irradiated?
The FDA requires that irradiated foods bear the international symbol for irradiation. Look for the Radura symbol along with the statement “Treated with radiation” or “Treated by irradiation” on the food label. Bulk foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are required to be individually labeled or to have a label next to the sale container. The FDA does not require that individual ingredients in multi-ingredient foods (e.g., spices) be labeled.
According to some sources, food irradiation exposes food to the equivalent of 30 million chest X-rays. It also creates new chemicals in foods called radiolytic products. Some of these products are known cancer-causing substances (like benzene in irradiated beef). Others are unique to the irradiation process and no one knows what effects these have on human health, despite government assurances. It is always wise to remember that both the US Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada routinely approve dangerous drugs that have killed many and continue to be on the market. So we know decisions not conducive to our health have been made in the past.
Irradiation also destroys essential vitamins and nutrients that are naturally present in food, just like pasteurization of milk does. Even at low doses, some irradiated foods lose 20% of vitamins such as C, E, K, and B complex. Because irradiation breaks down the food’s cell walls, accelerated vitamin losses occur during storage—up to 80 percent. Ironically, irradiation both creates harmful free radicals and destroys the antioxidant vitamins necessary to fight them!
Further, foods that have been exposed to ionizing radiation have “counterfeit freshness” and tend to become rancid. When electron beams are used, trace amounts of radioactivity may be created. In Europe, food irradiation has been used to camouflage spoiled seafood. Consumers should ask, “Why is the food suddenly so dirty that it has to be irradiated?”
Ionizing radiation also knocks electrons out of atoms and creates free radicals. These free radicals react with food components, creating new radiolytic products, some of which are toxic (benzene, formaldehyde, lipid peroxides) and some of which may be unique to irradiated foods. No one knows the long term impact of eating unknown quantities of these damaged foods. Studies on animals fed irradiated foods have shown increased tumors, reproductive failures and kidney damage. Chromosomal abnormalities occurred in children from India who were fed freshly irradiated wheat.
Irradiation is a quick fix with long-term consequences
Irradiation doesn’t kill all bacteria; those that survive are radiation-resistant. Eventually these bacteria will require higher doses of radiation. Irradiation doesn’t kill the bacterium that causes botulism, or viruses. It can’t be used on dairy products, a major source of food poisoning. If the labels are removed, irradiation will be used very widely because producers will ‘follow the leader’ and irradiate to prevent themselves from liability for food poisoning, no matter how remote the possibility. The costs, as always, will be passed on to the consumer.
This is one more reason why I support the organic industry. Supermarket foods are becoming more poisonous to us all the time. In Canada we now have genetically modified apples, salmon and now irradiated beef. In the US it gets even worse. Please make wise choices in your food selections to stay healthy.