Have you ever wondered about the safety of a food that has been “irradiated”? What exactly does irradiated mean? Although it does not sound like something beneficial, irradiation is actually beneficial to food. By subjecting food to ionizing radiation, or “irradiation”, bacteria, viruses and tiny insects which may cause illness to the person ingesting them, are killed by a combination of x-rays, gamma rays, and electron beams.
Contrary to some beliefs, irradiated food is not radioactive and only produces very small alterations in the chemical composition of the food, such as the DNA destruction of harmful microorganisms which will prevent these germs from reproducing and further infecting the food. Irradiating food is similar to the pasteurization of milk, and is presently allowed in over 40 countries. In addition, it does not alter the taste or nutritional value of food.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that irradiation of food posed no health risk in 1963, finding that irradiating food can indeed destroy many food-borne illnesses such as salmonella poisoning and E. coli. While the practice of good sanitation is still required in regards to food safety regulations, irradiation is used as additional protection against food-borne pathogens causing sickness in humans. Irradiation has also been approved by the World Health Organization of the United Nations and the American Medical Association of the United States.
A list of foods routinely irradiated includes pork chops, liver, hamburger, poultry, white potatoes, and fresh produce. You can tell if a food has been irradiated by the presence of an international symbol printed on the package called the “radura”, a circular symbol that can be any color. In the United States, restaurants do not have to publicly reveal whether or not they use irradiated food. Remember, however, that handling irradiated food does not mean you do not have to practice food safety measures, such as washing your hands, sanitizing food-oriented utensils and the surfaces they lay on, properly cooking food for the appropriate amount of time at the correct temperature; wrapping or sealing food in plastic wrap or airtight containers; and refrigerating any perishable foods within one or two hours of using it.
Irradiating raw meat at butchering places may exterminate bacteria such as E. coli before it is shipped to a grocery store where it could possibly infect many people. Irradiation is also capable of destroying Toxoplasma organisms, which can cause severe eye and congenital diseases. Meat that is processed and ready to eat out of the package, such as delicatessen meats and hot dogs, should be irradiated in order to kill the bacteria Listeria. Even animal feed can become infected with salmonella, but with irradiation, this potential for livestock devastation could be prevented.
Even though the benefits irradiation are evident, and no harmful effects have been shown to occur, widespread approval for the extensive use of irradiation has been very sluggish due to erroneous beliefs about the possible presence of harmful radiation in foods exposed to irradiation.