What was once space-age technology is now a promising tool to help ensure that the food we eat is safe. Irradiation is used to kill parasites, insects, fungi and disease-causing germs in a range of foodstuffs, from spices to strawberries to chicken.
NASA was really the first to put the technology to workirradiating food for astronauts to eat in space. Apollo 17 astronauts ate radiation-sterilized ham on the moon.
In the 1980's, it became common to irradiate spices, herbs and dry vegetables to get rid of insects and bacteria. Irradiation is also used on pork and poultry and most recently was approved for red meat.
Foodborne illness is a serious concern in the United States. Every year, 76 million Americans get sick from something they atemore than one in a thousand, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Some 300,000 people end up in the hospital and 5,000 die. Treatment for foodborne illnesses carries a price tag of at least $6.7 billion each year, the CDC says.
Food safety experts are rooting for irradiation because it's an excellent weapon against the five worst foodborne bacteria: Salmonella, Listeria, Campylobacter, Cyclospora and virulent strains of E.coli. These pathogens currently cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations each year.
How Irradiation Works
During irradiation, food moves through a chamber where it is exposed to a radiant energy source such as gamma rays, electron beams or x-rays. The radiation treatment doesn't make the food radioactive, but it does kill harmful bacteria, especially when used to treat meat and poultry. And it slows spoiling. Irradiated strawberries, for example, will keep for up to three weeks, versus up to five days when untreated.
Irradiation doesn't destroy all pathogens. Also, food can become contaminated after it's been irradiated. Safe food handling is always critical. To learn more, read our article on Food Safety.
Also refer to FoodFit's Cook it Safe Calculator to find out the proper cooking temperatures for your meat and poultry.
The Public Debate
Government experts say that irradiation changes the nutrient value of food about the same as cooking or freezing does and that the changes in flavor and texture are slight. Some consumer groups don't see eye to eye with that assessment.
Recently, two groups asked the Federal Trade Commission to crack down on some food irradiation companies that were using euphemisms like "cold pasteurization" and "electronic pasteurization" to advertise the technology.
"Comparing food that's been blasted with the equivalent of millions of chest X-rays to pasteurized milkit would be funny if it weren't so deceitful," Peter Jenkins, an attorney and policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety said in a statement.
The Center for Food Safety and Public Citizen, Ralph Nader's consumer advocacy organization, are campaigning against irradiation, saying it can destroy vitamins, corrupt flavor and create cancer-causing chemicals.
But the American Dietetic Association, one of FoodFit's Resource Associations, says irradiation enhances the safety and quality of the food supply. ADA says consumers need to be educated about this food safety tool.
Down the Road
Outside of astronaut meals and kitchen spices, irradiation is not widely used for food yet. The jury is still out on how popular it will be with consumers. Experts guess it will tack on two to five cents a pound to the price of meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables.
If you're wondering whether your food has been irradiated, check the label. The Food and Drug Administration currently requires that irradiated foods be stamped "treated by irradiation" and carry the radura symbol.