According to the USDA, food irradiation is a technology designed to reduce harmful bacteria in food. Sterilizing food with radiation might be the answer to food contamination that has resulted in widespread food poisoning.
Irradiation penetrates the food matrix, killing microorganisms without a significant increase in temperature therefore, it is also known as “cold” pasteurization. I guess that sounds relatively positive in terms of food sanitation, especially with so much food-borne illness in the news. But then there’s that word, irradiation.
Is Irradiation the Same As Pasteurization?
Louis Pasteur discovered that he could prevent beer and wine from fermenting by heating it (to 135 degrees Fahrenheit) for a few minutes. The process of pasteurization is named for him.
When they pasteurize milk, the milk is heated to 145 degrees Fahrenheit for 30 minutes (or to 160 degrees for 15 minutes), and then rapidly cooled. Pasteurizing food products destroys potentially harmful organisms. Unfortunately, the process also destroys enzymes, vitamins and friendly beneficial bacteria (irradiation does too). That said, regardless of how you look at it, irradiation is not pasteurization. Irradiation is also not the same as microwaving. The delivery mechanism such as gamma rays or x-rays have far more energy and affect food differently.
How Is Food Irradiated?
Food is ‘irradiated’ by using electron beams, gamma rays or x-rays to deliver a powerful amount of radiation equivalent to 10-70 million chest x-rays. Obviously this is very different from simply heating a food to a high temperature.
Radioactive gamma rays bombard the molecular structure of the food. The least alarming result might be the 20-80% depletion of vitamins and minerals.
The History of Food Irradiation
The process is a nuclear technology and the idea reportedly originated with Dwight Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” proposal. Eisenhower spoke to the United Nations General Assembly in 1953, seven years after the bombing of Hiroshima, promoting the idea of peaceful and positive uses for nuclear technology.
According to a Food Marketing Institute document providing background information on food irradiation, the US began research in this area in the 1940’s. The FDA approved irradiation for some foods in the 1960’s, including canned bacon. In 1968, the FDA reversed this decision upon learning that laboratory animals who ate irradiated foods died prematurely, had low weight gain, and fewer surviving offspring.
The FDA once again approved irradiation for spices and some other foods in 1983, and since then has deemed it safe for eggs, red meat, poultry, pork, fruits and vegetables. Astronauts eat irradiated foods during NASA missions.
IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations, an agency that promotes nuclear technologies, has worked to gain worldwide acceptance of food irradiation. The agency and the World Health Organization entered an agreement in 1959 that gave IAEA “the primary responsibility for encouraging, assisting and coordinating research on, and development and practical application of atomic energy for peaceful uses throughout the world.” IAEA actively promotes food irradiation through scientific committees offering assurances of safety and wholesomeness.
To be sure, the Department of Energy, DOE, found a remarkable way to dispose of highly radioactive waste with food irradiation. The “Byproducts Utilization Program” of the 1970’s allowed for a radioactive isotope called cesium-137 to be sold to private companies for food irradiation. Thus this radioactive waste byproduct from nuclear bomb production found a use and DOE admitted at a congressional hearing in 1983, “The utilization of these radioactive materials simply reduces our waste handling problem.”
Five years later, radioactive material contaminated water that in turn contaminated food being irradiated for mass distribution. Cleanup cost taxpayers a reported $47 million. Nevertheless, food irradiation is touted more and more as the best way to prevent foodborne illness.
Research and Food Safety
In testing for toxicity, the FDA classifies the process of irradiating food as a food additive, rather than a processing procedure. Opponents argue that there is simply not enough research to prove that irradiated food is safe to eat and in fact, point to years of research showing irradiated food is dangerous.
Toxicity studies reviewed by the FDA – 441 of them - were all determined to be flawed according to testimony by the FDA’s own team leader in charge of new food additives. Ultimately the FDA claimed only five of the 441 studies were properly conducted and those five would be sufficient to support safety.
Many are concerned that extensive application of irradiation would ultimately affect proper handling and sanitation since bacteria that show signs of spoilage with odor may be destroyed. Also, free radicals are generated by the radiation and combine to form radiolytic products, byproducts that include various mutagens (substances that can induce genetic mutation or increase the rate of mutation), many of which are carcinogens.
According to Jeffrey Reinhardt, MSc, a medical scientist, one of the founders of The National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, and founding Director of People for Pure Foods,
"Even at one-tenth the concentration of radiolytic products known by the FDA to be formed by irradiation at 100 Krad,” (the maximum permitted dose of irradiation for fruits and vegetables) “irradiation of foods in the human diet represents predictably unacceptable risks to the public's health,” and “will inevitably lead to neoplastic transformations of liver cells in a fertile field for the ultimate growth of cancer cells; these will almost certainly evolve to produce hepatocellular (liver) carcinoma.”
Irradiation promotes Aflatoxin. Aflatoxins are extremely toxic, carcinogenic, and immunosuppressive substances produced by specific fungi. They can naturally contaminate many foods including cotton, soybean, nuts, and milk, but irradiating food stimulates the production of aflatoxin.
Research not funded and controlled by the industry itself is compelling. Government researchers in Germany discovered a class of chemicals in irradiated food, cyclobutanones – which do not occur naturally in any food – and were shown to promote cancer development and cause genetic damage in rats. The chemicals have also been shown to cause genetic and cellular damage to human and rat cells.
Other studies indicated potential chromosome damage, immunotoxicity (think changes to the immune system’s structure and function following exposure to a substance), increased kidney disease, blood clots in the heart, testicular damage, and increased testicular tumors.
One study in India found that four out of five children fed irradiated wheat developed something called polyploidy, a chromosomal abnormality that can indicate future cancer development. However, the USDA published what seems like an impressive rebuttal
to the Indian study, summarizing Chinese research studies.
21st Century also published the following response to the Indian study, along with various
answers to other common objections
Objection: Food irradiation caused polyploidy in India.
Response: Perhaps the most frequently cited objection to food irradiation by its opponents is based on a study by the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad, India, in the mid-1970s that found polyploidy (chromosomal changes) in a small sample of malnourished children fed irradiated wheat.
Both an Indian government committee and an international committee determined that the conclusions of this study could not be supported by the data, that the study was faulty, and that the results were not reproducible. The Indian government committee found that “the frequency of 1.8 polyploid cells found in children eating freshly irradiated wheat was well within the normal range of healthy human beings” (as reported in the FDA statement in the Federal Register, Dec. 30, 1988, p. 53183).
Volatile and toxic chemicals are produced following irradiation including formaldehyde, benzene and toluene
. Benzene is a known carcinogen and though people in favor of food irradiation point out that just heating or cooking food produces benzene, as much as seven times more benzene has been found in cooked, irradiated beef than in cooked, non-irradiated beef.
And there are other concerns, for example, irradiation may also cause bacteria to mutate into hardier strains and irradiation could hide evidence of horrific factory farming conditions. Changes in the appearance, color, smell, taste and texture of irradiated foods have also been noted.
Do Consumers Want Irradiated Food?
Surveys of consumer attitudes differ. The Food Marketing Institute refers to their own surveys stating that the proportion of consumers who regard irradiation as a serious health risk declined from 43% in 1987 to 33 percent in 1997. However, a Food and Water report by Susan Meeker-Lowry and Jemdfer Ferrara, “Meat Monopolies: Dirty Meat and the False Promises of Irradiation” noted an August 1997 CBS News poll that indicated “nation-wide 73 percent of people oppose it, and 77 percent say they wouldn't eat irradiated food.”
Better sanitation is stressed by groups opposed to irradiation. But if sanitation alone isn’t enough, are there alternatives to irradiation or pasteurization? The Organic Consumers Association has been vocal and critical of the science the FDA used to justify its approval of food irradiation, and the organization provides information on possible alternatives to processes they believe damage nutritive value and that may cause disease. These alternatives include ultra high pressure, pulsed energy and bright light.
Labeling of irradiated foods may be misleading or non-existent, though some form of labeling is required by the FDA, including the radura symbol that appears here to the right. This international symbol for irradiation was mandated in 1986.
However, there is little oversight or enforcement and when the word ‘irradiated’ is replaced with ‘pasteurized’ (as in ‘cold pasteurization’), it’s likely that no one would notice much. After all, we’re all very used to seeing this seemingly harmless term on cartons of milk.
If you would like to avoid irradiated foods, a safe bet is to purchase and eat locally produced food that hasn’t traveled thousands of miles. Local produce is fresher, provides more nutrients, and helps support small farming operations, whether organic or not. Though buying organic still means vital nutrients haven't been destroyed by irradiation.
A fresh tomato grown conventionally nearby is likely to be better for you and your family than an organic tomato grown thousands of miles away. In fact, many local growers practice sustainable agriculture and choose not to use synthetic chemicals and pesticides on their crops though they do not meet all the criteria for having the organic certification.
Organic production standards prohibit ionizing radiation processes. Still, corporations have jumped on the financial opportunity in organics and threaten to degrade the quality of organic food. Their production methods make competing more difficult for all small farmers and ignore the welfare of animals like dairy cows altogether. Supporting local sustainable food production is a must when avoiding irradiated food, and it’s good for you, your family and your community.
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