Food irradiation: A food safety technology designed to eliminate disease-causing germs from foods. Treating food with ionizing radiation can kill bacteria and parasites that would otherwise cause foodborne disease. Similar technology is used to sterilize medical devices so they can be used in surgery or implanted without risk of infection. The effects of irradiation on the food and on animals and people eating irradiated food have been studied extensively. These studies show clearly that when irradiation is used as approved on foods, disease-causing germs are reduced or eliminated, the food does not become radioactive, dangerous substances do not appear in the foods, and the nutritional value of the food is essentially unchanged.
Sources of ionizing radiation that have been used include gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays. Gamma rays are produced by radioactive isotopes such as Cobalt-60. Electron beams are produced by linear accelerators, which themselves are powered by electricity. The dose applied to a product is the most important factor of the process. At high doses, food is essentially sterilized, just as occurs in canning. Products so treated can be stored at room temperature almost indefinitely.
Treating raw meat and poultry with irradiation can eliminate bacteria commonly found on raw meat and raw poultry, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. Irradiating prepared ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and deli meats can eliminate the risk of Listeria from such foods. Irradiation can also eliminate parasites like Cyclospora and bacteria like Shigella and Salmonella from fresh produce. Irradiation is considered by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be "a safe and effective technology that can prevent many foodborne diseases."
CDC has stated that "food irradiation ... holds great potential for preventing many important foodborne diseases that are transmitted through meat, poultry, fresh produce and other foods. An overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that irradiation does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make the food unsafe to eat. Just as for the pasteurization of milk, it will be most effective when irradiation is coupled to careful sanitation programs. Consumer confidence will depend on making food clean first, and then using irradiation or pasteurization to make it safe. Food irradiation is a logical next step to reducing the burden of foodborne disease in the United States."
Not everyone by any means is agreed about the merits of food irradiation. Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, and the Center for Food Safety assert there is "an extensive body of research suggesting that irradiated food may not be safe for human consumption. Irradiation results in the formation of chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects. Lab animals fed irradiated food have developed serious health problems... Further, irradiation does nothing to remove the feces, urine, vomit and pus that often contaminate meat in today's high-volume, factory-style slaughterhouses and processing plants. Research indicates that irradiation also can destroy vitamins and nutrients, disrupt proteins and essential fatty acids, and corrupt flavor, texture and odor."
Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Food Irradiation Food Fact Safety Sheet. By Charlotte P. Brennand, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist
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