Is Food Irradiation Safe?
What is your opinion of food irradiation? The FDA approves of it, and the American Dietetic Association has officially endorsed it as a means to enhance the "safety" of the food supply. But I'm skeptical.
Food irradiation is a method of sterilizing food, preserving it against breakdown by bacteria and other organisms. The American Dietetic Association supports it because it kills microorganisms and replaces chemical treatments. In general, it may be preferable to chemically treating food. But I don't like to see it substituted for proper inspection and grading, which seem to be slipping in the United States with the consolidation of the food industry. In recent years, food poisoning from bacteria, viruses, and parasites has increased in both developed and developing countries.
It's important to recognize, too, that irradiation kills most of the pathogens that are in the food at the time, but doesn't prevent new ones from getting into it. Thus it does not substitute for proper storage and preparation of food after treatment. The machinery used for food irradiation is very similar to that used to sterilize medical supplies. The process works by using high energy rays to kill the rapidly growing cells of insects and bacteria that have invaded food. Ionizing radiation is very effective against Trichinella spiralis, certain tapeworms, and E. coli. It takes higher doses to kill salmonella, except in cases such as fresh eggs, where very small amounts destroy infections. Irradiation doesn't kill the spores that cause botulism, because it takes more radiation than the maximum approved amount, although it does make the organism more sensitive to heat later.
The cells in the food you eat, since they're not growing, are said to be unaffected by irradiation. But there are some chemical changes that may or may not be harmful; the studies are contradictory. We do know that some very sensitive vitamins, like B-1 in pork, are lost. In potatoes, the nitrate-nitrogen concentration is increased. Many people who oppose irradiation also raise concerns about the disposal of radioactive waste products created by the process, and the exposure of workers to radioactive materials.
The FDA has approved the irradiation of pork and poultry, spices, wheat, fruits, and vegetables. At the very least, I believe irradiated food should be identified on the label so that customers can choose whether to eat it or not. In many cases, such as spices, there's no indication. That probably isn't significant because you don't eat much. But wheat flour, potatoes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables are more significant in our diets. I'd like to know which foods have been irradiated. The food industry has been trying to sneak this process by us, with warm, fuzzy labeling like the little flower symbol. Or they may use a cute little phrase like, "picowaved for your protection." That's deceptive.