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You Ask, I Answer: Irradiation

radura_medWhat [can you tell us] about irradiated food?

– Dave (last name unknown)
Via the blog

When food is irradiated, it is treated with high amounts of X-rays (in some instances, electron beams or gamma rays).

Just how high?  As much as the amount of radiation in 700 chest X-rays.

Irradiation is commonly done on spices and produce; millions of dollars are currently spent researching how to use it on meat without altering taste (current irradiated meats have an instantly recognizable and unpleasant flavor to them).

Why irradiate, you ask?  To eliminate pathogens and bacteria.  While irradiation supporters point to this practice as a way to guarantee the safety of the food supply, there are several aspects that don’t put me at ease:

  1. While irradiated food does not “become radioactive”, research studies have demonstrated that when fat-containing foods (like meat) are irradiated, carcinogenic compounds are formed
  2. Irradiation may kill pathogens, but it does not protect a food from being contaminated after it is irradiated.  It doesn’t guarantee much of anything
  3. Research on irradiation is limited; we have no idea of the long-term effects

It’s no secret that irradiation is one way to sell products that would otherwise be considered unsafe (ie: products from unsanitary factories). For example, meat that would otherwise be “unfit” for sale (and, therefore, human consumption!) can potentially be irradiated and sold at your local supermarket.

Here’s a suggestion — deal with the actual issue!  Rather than rely on irradiation, hold food processing plants and factories accountable and let them know in clear terms that failure to abide by sanitation laws results in dire financial consequences — like no inventory to sell.

The Food & Drug Administration isn’t doing much to help consumers avoid irradiated foods, if they so choose. Although irradiated products (i.e.: oregano) must be labeled as such, irradiated ingredients in non-irradiated food products do not have to be labeled.

By the way, the image accompanying this post is the official irradiation logo, also known as the Radura symbol.  Why does it look like a harmless plant basking in sunlight?

The European Union, always ahead of the curve when it comes to food issues, has deemed the irradiation of meat illegal.

I am rather concerned about the United States’ allowance of irradiated meats.  Although, as previously stated, it is not common practice at the moment due to the creation of unpleasant flavors, if someone comes up with the technology to mask that, you can bet irradiated meat (along with its carcinogenic compounds) will be widely available.

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One Comment

  1. Liz said on May 31st, 2009

    I’m always intrigued by the differences in American food regulations compared to those in Canada. Here spices/herbs/seasonings are the primary target of irradiation, as well as potatoes and onions (to prevent sprouting, they say!), wheat flour, and a very few other things. Ground beef has been pending approval for irradiation for over a decade now. Here also, if an irradiated ingredient is used in an otherwise irradiated product, it must be listed as irradiated if it constitutes >10% of the total product by weight. I’ve yet to see that on any packaging, though.

    Food irradiation was discussed briefly in a food science class I completed recently and the instructor seemed to think of it as an effective, efficient, economically advantageous advance of food safety bearing negligible risk. I am still not sold.

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