Irradiated Food

Oh, the food supply, the food supply. It’s impossible to miss the media stories on the risks of food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli. Meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables always seem to be the most insidious culprits. (But that Little Debbie snack cake, you’ll be relieved to know, is on the safe list.)

We’ve all heard that it’s important to diligently wash our produce and thoroughly cook all meats. But more and more, we’re hearing that these measures just aren’t enough. In contrast to two washing practices, a recent study organized by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service shows that irradiation kills more than 99% of many microbes, including salmonella and E. coli. Irradiation was compared with three minutes’ submergence in water and three minutes of cleaning with an unidentified chemical treatment. The water bath was ineffective at killing or removing E. coli, while the chemical treatment didn’t have significant effect on E. coli in tested spinach leaves and was not quite 90% effective when it came to lettuce.

Studies show that certain disease-causing microbes are masters at playing hide-and-go seek with such chemical sanitizers. These bacteria can make their way inside the leaves of lettuce, spinach and other vegetables and fruit, where surface treatments cannot reach. In addition, microbes can organize themselves into tightly knit communities called biofilms that coat fruits and vegetables and protect the bacteria from harm.

via Science Daily

Since 1999, the FDA has been reviewing irradiation and approving its use in steps. As things stand right now, many foods, including meats, produce, fresh shell eggs, wheat flour, and juices, can be irradiated but must be labeled as such (with the exception of spices). It’s important to note that schools and restaurants, however, may serve irradiated food without offering notice. A comforting thought as you send junior off to school.

The irradiation process involves using high energy gamma rays. The short wavelengths and high frequencies result in virtually no heat but ionizing radiation, which kills bacteria and insects and extends shelf life. The controversy surrounding irradiation revolves around what else the gamma rays kill. Critics contend that the process damages antioxidants, essential fatty acids, protein and other nutrients. Others add less than savory comments about the change in taste and texture of irradiated food. More contested is the possible creation of carcinogenic substances known as cyclobutanones as well as other damaging carcinogens, including mutagenic compounds found in lab animal experiments.

Finally, critics of irradiated food claim that the real agenda behind the irradiation push can be found in disgusting food (particularly meat) processing that would make Upton Sinclair lose his lunch. Cleaner, slower processing with better oversight would result in cleaner meats and other foods. (Oh, these are details for another post – or another website period.) Knowing what we know, we would agree with the processing assessment and general criticism of irradiation. The problems we create for ourselves in this modern age….

When it comes to irradiation, we’re going to take a pass. (Now excuse us while we dry heave.)

Ricecake Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Center for Food Safety – Food Irradiation: A Gross Failure (PDF)

LA Times: More on Irradiation

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11 thoughts on “Irradiated Food”

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  1. No offense but those studies aren’t exactly what I would consider supportive. The first one is finding out what levels of cyclobutanones are damaging to DNA (not measuring levels in irradiated foods) and the second one is measuring the effects of cyclobutanones on rats that were purposefully injected with a carcinogen.

  2. Nic, You have a point that two studies don’t tell us everything we want to know, but I don’t think they’re irrelevant by a long shot. In the first study, the cyclobutanones are determined to be a product of the irradiation of food containing fat and not inherent to the food itself or existing in the food prior to irradiation. The second tests the damaging effects of these same irradiation product substances.

    It *would* be interesting and even more confirming to see a study measuring the levels of these substances in different irradiated food and then to see the results of actual damage caused by the foods themselves. Still, it’s common for substances in question to be isolated and tested in addition to their sources being used for testing (e.g. wine and resveratrol).

  3. do you know what the affect of microwaving meat / veg / milk is? does it ruin the proteins, change the fatty acid structure etc? do you have a microwave? also (off topic) what’s your stance on dairy? i notice you eat cheese, do you eat yogurt? or do you just avoid milk?

    1. Let me pull my physics degree off the wall here…All electromagnetic radiation (microwaves, UV, light and gamma rays) interacts with matter in little bundles called photons. The energy a photon is based only one the frequency. Gamma rays have high frequencies and micro waves have lower. Ionizing radiation are things that rip electrons off the molecule causing it to break up or combine into something else. In order to have enough energy to do that you need to be in the UV range or higher

      Microwaves are far lower than UV in frequency and therefore cannnot ionize. They work because the photon bundle interacts with the whole water molecule (not the electrons which are far smaller) causing it to vibrate and thus heat your food.

      Now it is true that heating can cause certain molecules to recombine when heated past a certain point but they aren’t in normal natural food. Basically if you oven cooking won’t make it carcinogenic then your microwave won’t either.

      Gamma rays are so high energy that they always ionize, which is why being near a nuclear bomb is bad even if you survive the big explosion, all that ionizing radiation can cause serious cellular damage.

  4. Very interesting. CNN reports that 300,000 people are hospitalized and 5000 die each year of food-born illness in America. It would seem that something needs to be done. And I’m certainly NOT a fan of chemical sanitizers. I had such hopes for irradiation… sigh. Thanks for the studies – gave me a lot to think about.

  5. I don’t even see what the point of these posts are if you can’t support your claims. If your goal is to just make us aware of potential (key word: potential) repercussions of irradiating food products, then that is great. Anything else is absurd given the support. These posts are frustrating.

  6. Ari, that sounds like the same logic that got us to where we’re at now. Drugs companies don’t worry about “potential” side effects and they don’t want anyone else to either. Tobacco only had the and according to most government still does only have the “potential” to cause cancer and other diseases. Fat, saturated fat, whatever you want “potentially” caused this or that. Never proof anywhere. But scientists, government and then corporations took it and ran. Look where that got us. We’ve screwed with/tried to improve what nature gives us so many times either with good intentions or just plain greed and plenty of times the damaging results do not show up till later.

    The post is obviously meant to suggest to warn that you shouldn’t be surprised if some unintended consequences show up later that they aren’t looking for or don’t have the technology, etc.

  7. Sorry for being so “talkative” on this one. It’s just a subject I happen to be really concerned about.

    Ari, the language in the post includes words like “possible” effects. That seems to be what you’re looking for, and that’s what’s in the post.

    Charlotte, those are eye-opening statistics. It’s scary to think about food poisoning, no doubt. I’ve had food poisoning several times in my life (a few times very severely), but in my case it’s always been from restaurants or frozen foods containing meat. (My guess with the frozen foods was they were left out and then put back by store employees.)

    I agree with the post that better food processing and accountability is a better option for lowering food poisoning risks.

  8. It’s scary to think that the FDA feels that this will have no affect on humans when tests show that it alters the taste, color, and odor of the meat…how could it not lose nutritional value as well? Money, money, money that is all they care about.

  9. Microwaves are radiation too. So is visible light. And radio waves. Better shield your house with lead if you want food that never comes in contact with radiation.

  10. Definitely stomach-turning. I agree with the critics- prevention is key. If the meat industry was more sanitary in the first place, we wouldn’t have to worry about this and numerous other complications. I personally shy away from the labeled irradiated meat, and am appalled by the government’s idea of potentially allowing irradiated meat to be labeled ‘pasteurized’. A healthier (and tastier) way to help stop the growth of E.coli bacteria may lie within the recipe. With a ratio of 7.5 percent spice to 92.5 percent ground meat: clove, cinnamon, garlic, oregano and sage have been found to reduce the bacteria by 99, 80, 75, 50, and 37 percent respectively. In addition, commercially ground meat is known to carry more bacteria than meat from a single animal you grind yourself.
    Source: ‘ChefMD’s Big book of Culinary Medicine’.