Food Irradiation

By Dr. J.D. Decuypere

Food irradiation is a process whereby the food is exposed to high levels of radiation in order to kill insects, bacteria and mould, and make the food last longer on the store shelves. Although the idea of radiating food sounds quite unappetising to most people, it has been practised in the USA since the 1960's, when the Food & Drug Administration approved the irradiation of wheat and white potatoes. During the 1980s, the FDA approved petitions for irradiation of spices and seasonings, pork, fresh fruits, and dry or dehydrated substances. Poultry received approval in 1990. The FDA approved irradiation for red meat in 1997.

The type of radiation used to irradiate foods is gamma energy, because gamma rays do not create radioactive particles. "Meltdown" and chain reactions do not occur, and the irradiated foods and their packaging are apparently not made radioactive. The gamma energy penetrates the food and its packaging, but most of the energy simply passes through the food, similar to the way microwaves pass through food, leaving no residue. The small amount of energy that does not pass through the food is negligible and is retained as heat.

Radiation is basically energy moving through space in invisible waves. The nature of the energy is defined by the wavelength of the energy. As the wavelength gets shorter, the energy of the wave increases. Microwaves have a relatively long wavelength so they have lower energy; strong enough to move molecules and cause heat through friction, and maybe strong enough to structurally change atoms in the molecules. Radiation from gamma rays or X-rays has a shorter wavelength and therefore higher energy. This type of radiation definitely has enough energy to change atoms, and changing the atoms is what kills most of the bacteria in the food. However, studies have shown that irradiating micro-organisms like E. coli and salmonella may give rise to even more dangerous, radiation-resistant strains of bacteria. Under laboratory conditions scientists found that one particular type of bacteria can survive a radiation dose five times what the FDA will allow for beef.
In tests, scientists exposed this bacterium to enough radiation to kill a person several thousand times over; the bacteria survived. Before you get a false sense of security from the idea that food irradiation makes food much safer to eat - radiation is completely ineffective against viruses, and does absolutely nothing to clean the food of waste products and other unsanitary matter often left on beef, chicken, and lamb as the result of filthy and inhumane slaughterhouse conditions.

World-wide, 38 countries permit irradiation of food, and more than 28 billion pounds of food is irradiated annually in Europe. The United States has 40 licensed irradiation facilities, and while most are used to sterilise medical and pharmaceutical supplies, 16 of the facilities also irradiate spices for wholesale use, and several other facilities irradiate other food products. Currently, the US government is proposing hundreds of food irradiation facilities around the country. Each facility will contain as much radiation as that which was released at Chernobyl. Inherent with that are some serious safety issues, from highly toxic waste disposal to the danger of accidental release of the radiation into the atmosphere.

In studies done on malnourished children by the National Institute of Nutrition at the Council of Medical Research in Hyderabad, India, blood tests showed chromosome damage after being fed freshly irradiated wheat for six weeks. Children fed a similar but un-irradiated diet did not show damage. When the children were taken off the irradiated diet the condition gradually went away.

Irradiation Destroys Nutrition

From a nutritional aspect, irradiation of food destroys essential vitamins and minerals, including: vitamin A, thiamine, B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid, C, E, and K. Amino acid and essential polyunsaturated fatty acid content may also be affected. A 20 to 80 percent loss of any of these is not uncommon. It also kills friendly bacteria and enzymes, effectively rendering the food "dead" and therefore useless to the body.
In the words of Donald R Louria Ph.D., Chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, "The supporters of food irradiation treat the potential damage to the nutrient value of food as if it were unimportant or non-existent. That is a major mistake. If the nutrient value of food is reduced, then the argument for food irradiation prolonging shelf life is undercut. Surely, it would not make sense to prolong shelf life if the foods are nutritionally defective."
Dr. Louria has a point: even if testing showed that irradiated food was "safe", it has already been shown to lack nutritional value. One good thing is that in the United States, food growers and manufacturers must mention on the label that the food is irradiated, so avoidance of irradiated foods is possible if one shops carefully. However, if you eat out at a restaurant you will not know whether you are eating irradiated food, as they are not obliged to reveal that information.

It is clear that food irradiation has not been adequately tested on humans, and the negative implications are apparent: potential nuclear accidents resulting in radiation leaks, more nuclear waste to dispose of, mutating bacteria, carcinogenic substances and depleted nutritional value of the food irradiated.

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