Several years ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a process called irradiation for protecting meats, fruits, vegetables and spices from disease-causing bacteria. Irradiation uses gamma rays, electron beams or X-rays to break up bacteria lurking in mass-produced food.
While consumers expressed little interest in purchasing irradiated foods, which must be labeled as such, the FDA recently proposed changing the rules governing how irradiated food is labeled. Currently, it must be labeled as 'Treated by/with irradiation' and with a radura symbol. Under the proposed rule, manufactures would be allowed to replace the word 'irradiation' with 'pasteurized.'
Here are answers to commonly asked questions about
Does irradiating food make it radioactive?
No. There are three different methods used to irradiate foods, and while one of them does involve the use of nuclear radiation, none of them render the food itself radioactive. Each method uses an energy source, either gamma rays, x-rays or electron beams, to produce high frequency energy that breaks the chemical bonds in cells that are essential for cell growth and reproduction.
Gamma rays, made with radioactive cobalt or cesium, are used more often than the other methods; however, the food never comes in contact with the material, so it can't become contaminated in that way. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, too much of this radiation can make some of the atoms in the food unstable, (aka radioactive), but the FDA limits the amount of energy that can be used to prevent this from happening. Currently, the process has been approved for meat and poultry, spices, as well as certain fruits and vegetables.
Will eating these foods harm my
No one really knows for sure, because there haven't been any studies conducted on people who have eaten irradiated foods over a long period of time. At the very least, irradiated foods are slightly less nutritious, since the process destroys nutrients such as thiamine (an essential B vitamin) and also vitamin C. The U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that this loss is insignificant, which isn't surprising since it's the same position they've taken regarding the nutritional decline of our food supply overall.
Among the concerns voiced by George Tritsch, research professor emeritus at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y., and others is that bombarding foods with gamma rays creates free radicals, the unstable molecular fragments that go about our bodies crashing into cells as they search for an unimpaired molecule to render them stable again. In addition, certain fats subjected to irradiation produce potentially carcinogenic byproducts, such as formaldehyde and benzene, although many scientists dismiss this concern because similar compounds are created during ordinary cooking processes.
For more information on irradiation:
Organic Consumers Association Stop Food Irradiation Project