Food Irradiation

The federal government may approve wider use of food irradiation, a controversial method of preservation.

| September/October 1984

food irradiation - illustration of radiation symbol inside the outline of an apple

Although the term "food irradiation" might sound ominous, research into its long-term health effects have been inconclusive.

Illustration by Fotolia/Lack-O'Keen

The hazards imposed upon all life forms by today's worldwide arms race prove beyond question that Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program has been an utter failure. The development of nuclear power plants has undoubtedly abetted the spread of the bomb to a steadily lengthening list of countries. And, in any event, atomic electricity seems on the verge of being declared an economic bust. What's more, practical uses for bombs—such as the foolhardy scheme for excavating new Panama canals—have, thankfully, never materialized. There is, however, one vestige of Ike's program that, after 30 years of dormancy, is enjoying a new burst of enthusiasm.

Food irradiation, the process of bathing edibles in heavy doses of gamma radiation to preserve them, was first put into practical use by the U.S. Army back in 1953. The Quartermaster Corps found that irradiated rations would last much longer than food preserved by conventional means, such as heat. Onions, for example, would stay fresh for 16 months, whereas untreated bulbs would sprout within 90 days.

Since the 1950's, food irradiation has seen limited practical application in the U.S. (The meals packaged for our astronauts provide one celebrated example of the technique's success.) On a commercial basis, stored wheat and white potatoes have been treated since 1964, and in July of 1983 the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided to allow the use of up to one megarad (a million rads, which is a unit of absorbed ionizing energy) to retard the growth of microbes in spices. The FDA also allows the export of irradiated foodstuffs to any of the roughly 20 countries that permit the practice.

The lack of general acceptance of irradiation for food preservation in the United States stems from the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act of 1958, which classified irradiation as a food additive, rather than as a food processing technique. As a result, irradiation's proponents have had to prove that treating food with gamma radiation poses no hazards to human health. Of course, a chemical food additive can be tested with comparative speed and ease by administering large doses of the substance to animals. However, the same approach can't be used with radiation: Exposing food to doses thousands of times greater than the norm simply destroys it. Furthermore, there are limitations on how much food can be fed to a laboratory animal. As a result, expensive and lengthy studies of long-term (chronic) effects are required.

And as you'll soon find out, thorough examinations of the effects on humans of eating food that's been treated with radiation have not been done. Nonetheless, the FDA is under heavy pressure to approve additional uses of the technique. In November, 1983, Representative Sid Morrison of Washington introduced legislation that would reclassify irradiation under the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act as a food-processing technology. This would allow the FDA to go ahead with its intention of permitting irradiation with up to 100 kilorads (a tenth of a megarad) on most foods.

Easy Now

The very word irradiation will bring on a quickening of the pulse in many people. In fact, the topic is sensitive enough to require that we be cautious about jumping to conclusions. If there's one thing that all of the people embroiled in the controversy agree on, it's that there's no residual radiation in irradiated food. But, by the same token, we need to be careful about accepting the general proclamations of safety that are being widely issued in favor of the process. Food irradiation is fairly simple in concept but has very complicated ramifications.

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