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4 Sep

Irradiation: Savvy Safety Mechanism or Band-Aid for a Bigger Problem?

182389063 4d54a181e9Following the recent tainted spinach controversy, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month ruled that food manufacturers can now irradiate fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce to kill bacteria associated with food-borne illnesses.

Huh? Exactly. Essentially food irradiation refers to a process whereby food is exposed briefly to a radiant energy source (usually in the form of a gamma ray or electron beam) that is thought to kill harmful bacteria, thereby reducing the risk of contracting a food-borne disease. The FDA also contends that blasting your food with radiation can reduce the bacteria responsible for spoilage, kill insects and parasites, and delay ripening in certain fruits and vegetables. In fact, while we’re on the topic, it should probably be noted that the concept of irradiating foods is far from new: In 1999, the FDA began reviewing irradiation and has approved its use in meats, certain shell fish, produce, certain egg varieties, flour, spices and unpasteurized fruit juices. These foods, however, must bear an internationally recognizable stamp, known as a radura, to signal that the food has been irradiated.

Health experts – including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association – and many food manufacturers agree that the process is an effective method to reduce the transmission of food-borne diseases. They also note that the irradiation process – which the FDA likens to putting your food through an airport luggage scanner – does not make foods radioactive, change the chemical composition of food or have any harmful consequences.

Certainly, when the radiation dose is kept on the low side the plants composition remains relatively unchanged. However, even the FDA concedes that at certain levels, the process can result in a “small loss of nutrients” – on the scale of general cooking practices, canning or heat pasteurization. Critics, meanwhile, suggest that the FDA is grossly underestimating the effects of irradiation, suggesting that the process can also damage antioxidants, essential fatty acids, protein, vitamins and minerals. In fact, one study found that irradiating spinach with 2.5 grays of radiation resulted in a 10% reduction in folate levels in spinach; under current FDA rules, spinach and lettuce is irradiated with up to 4 grays of radiation. In addition, some have suggested that irradiation can lead to the creation of chemicals known as furans and 2-alkylcyclobutanones (say that one three times quickly!), which can be toxic when consumed in high doses.

In addition, it should also be noted that the irradiation process does have some limitations. While it can significantly reduce the quantity of bacteria, its effectiveness depends on the amount – and type – of bacteria on the vegetable to begin with. For example, if the irradiation machine misses a couple hundred million E. coli bacteria, you’ll probably never notice a difference, but if it misses even a few of the bacteria linked to salmonella, you’ll be hugging the toilet in no time!

While the concept of irradiation certainly has its pros and pitfalls, is it merely a quick-fix for a far bigger problem with our agriculture and food manufacturing practices? According to a science policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Center for Food Safety, for example, “food irradiation masks the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture.” Echoing these sentiments, other critics contend that more attention should be placed on food safety during the early stages of food processing. In fact, even the FDA notes in its information packet about irradiation food that the process “is not a substitute for comprehensive food safety programs throughout the food distribution system.”

The reality is that even though the irradiation process is generally safe and is unlikely to result in nutrient deficiencies for those following even a moderately healthful diet, there’s really no getting around the fact that those pathogens got there because of sloppy farm practices – and by sloppy, we mean those pathogens are there because your food has come into contact with animal poop.

With that in mind, there are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of contracting a food borne illness. For one, be mindful of the types of produce you purchase – if buying at a local farmers market, ask the seller how they grow and cultivate their produce. Another option? Do your homework on the back end to shore up your own immune system so that if a pathogen sneaks in under the radar, you’ll be able to weather the storm. Your best bet, however, is to stay well-informed about all things related to health and nutrition and use that knowledge as a compass to guide your own decisions.

Tom Chambers Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

What do those produce stickers really mean?

Genetically Modified Foods: Super Solution or Franken Future?

How to Shop a Farmers’ Market

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. “The FDA also contends that blasting your food with radiation can reduce the bacteria responsible for spoilage, kill insects and parasites, and delay ripening in certain fruits and vegetables”.

    This is the scariest and most irresponsible tactic I have ever heard of. While I am at it, why don’t I just top off my iced tea with cat urine!

    Jen C. wrote on September 4th, 2008
  2. Can anyone help me please ?

    Does anyone have experience of an epileptic child and controlling it with a ketogenic diet please ?

    A young lass in my wifes class..well her Mum is a single Mum from the middle east whose English and also her level of comprehension is not so good.
    Any pamphlets for the person who doesnt low carb…anything would be great as the poor lass has huge seizures.

    email supachramp at yahoo.com any suggestions would be more than super.

    Simontly Fellows wrote on September 4th, 2008
  3. Nice summary of the issue. I tend to be in the “it might be useful, but why not attack the root of the problem (ie, poor sanitary practices and conditions) camp. At least irradiation is a real solution (though not the best) to a real problem, unlike some other brilliant ideas like giving statins to children or anyone else who isn’t in that small percentage of the population who have been proven to benefit.

    One small issue, your raditation sign is actually a warning sign for non-ionizing radiation (such as cell phone towers), rather than the ionizing radiation used to treat food. Check out the Wiki entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hazard_symbol#Radioactive_sign
    I notice that the “radura” symbol that is required to be on the packaging of irradiated food is very benign-looking. Check it out here:
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/00/RADURAcx.JPG

    Scott Hanson wrote on September 4th, 2008
  4. Nice catch there, Scott.

    Yeah, sometimes our photos are more for fun illustration purposes rather than being overtly literal.

    That radura symbol is pretty funny though, too.

    Aaron wrote on September 4th, 2008
  5. I’ve been keeping your Primal rules in mind lately, but my breakfast habits die hard.

    I like oatmeal. I eat half a cup of oatmeal (150 calories) every morning for breakfast. I empty a packet of sugar into it. I eat it with espresso and milk, also with a packet of sugar.

    At any other time of the day, I’m totally primal. Do you think I’m doing myself in with the morning grain and sugar routine?

    Wilson wrote on September 4th, 2008
  6. Wilson. You probably aren’t making too much difference as your portion sizes are small. Nevertheless try to ease into the Primal way maybe try eggs and some fruit or fruit and nuts for breakfast a few days a week to start and then see if you can slowly get rid of the oatmeal and drop the sugar from the coffee….Good Luck you will feel better for it!!!

    Chris wrote on September 4th, 2008
  7. “For example, if the irradiation machine misses a couple hundred million E. coli bacteria, you’ll probably never notice a difference, but if it misses even a few of the bacteria linked to salmonella, you’ll be hugging the toilet in no time!”

    I’ve wondered why it takes a certain number of bacteria to cause an infection. Why not just one? One turns to two, then to four, etc.

    Ken wrote on September 6th, 2008
  8. You have to wonder why more operations are not using an all natural produce wash, especially at the industrial and foodservice levels?

    Here is the link to an interesting article I saw:

    http://www.upi.com/Health_News/2008/06/26/Produce_wash_kills_bacteria_on_food/UPI-42751214505272/

    Produce wash kills bacteria on food

    Published: June 26, 2008 at 2:34 PM

    PULLMAN, Wash., June 26 (UPI) — A fruit and vegetable wash, when used in food-manufacturing, can decrease food pathogens in produce-processing wash water, U.S. researchers said.

    Researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University said the product sold commercially as FIT Fruit and Vegetable Wash, not only proved much more effective than the commonly used chlorine dioxide, but is made from ingredients like citric acid and distilled grapefruit oil that are generally regarded as safe.

    Chlorine dioxide, used in food plants, can put workers at risk, when compromised by soils and plant debris in the wash water. In the study, chlorine dioxide killed 90 percent of the target organisms in the food plant and follow-up laboratory studies. By contrast, FIT killed 99.999 percent, said food scientist Dong-Hyun Kang of Washington State University.

    “If you had a million bacteria, you would have one left,” Kang said.

    The research — unusual because part of it was conducted under real-world conditions in an Idaho fresh pack potato operation — is published online ahead of print in the Journal of Food Science in August.

    P wrote on September 8th, 2008
  9. Why should the Govt. try to fix a Man Made Problem with a Man made problem?
    Approx. 1000 people die per year from Salmonella Poisoning.

    However 7.6 MILLION people died last year froom Cancer.
    Why don’t we go ahead and inform everyone about what Irradiation actually is.
    Irradiation is the USE of Electron Beams, propelled out of an electron gun. The electrons ARE RADIOACTIVE and kill any enzymes or bacteria that is present.
    Cobalt 60 is used in irradiation and must be created in a NUCLEAR REACTOR!
    Why would we eat anything in which Radiation is the Main ingredient?
    Irradiation damages the quality of food by creating free radicals and killing any sort of nutrient that was once in the food item.
    The FDA based its approval for irradiation on 5 out of 441 animal studies. The amount approved is much less then what is actually being used.
    Studies on human consumption of irradiation were found to be very disturbing. In animals, there were increased Tumors, Reproductive Failures, and Kidney Damage.
    Pleae, GO ORGANIC and Spread the message that Irradiated Food is NOT Food.

    http://www.peacehealthandfashion.com

    Christina Ciaccio wrote on October 26th, 2008
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    Oscar Stockdill wrote on October 14th, 2011

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