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The Problem of Food Poisoning: Is Irradiation the Answer?

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What Can Irradiation Eliminate? | What Are the Pros and Cons of Irradiation?

Image for iron In the United States, there are millions of cases of foodborne illnesses each year. For example, eating undercooked beef that is contaminated with Escherichia coli bacteria can lead to hospitalization and, in severe cases, even death. Irradiation has the potential to make food safer by reducing the number of harmful microorganisms. However, though these measures will eradicate bacteria, cooking meat thoroughly is still essential. Even after irradiation, meat can become recontaminated from other sources.

What Can Irradiation Eliminate?

Irradiation can destroy contaminants found in raw meat, shellfish, produce, and other foods. Examples of these contaminants include:

  • Bacteria like E. coli, Salmonella, Camphylobacter, Listeria, Vibrio, and Shigella
  • Parasites, like the Toxoplasma and Trichinella spiralis

While irradiating food will reduce the risk of getting a foodborne illness, it is still essential that meat and shellfish are cooked thoroughly. It is also important to remember that food that has been irradiated can still be contaminated from other sources. So, you will need to follow safety measures when handling food, such as using separate cutting boards for raw meat and other foods. It is essential to cook meat thoroughly.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Irradiation?

The process of irradiation does not leave food radioactive. It works by passing energy through the food, killing potentially lethal microorganisms and leaving no residual radiation. This method of food preservation was first approved in the 1960s. Since then, approval for fruits, vegetables, spices, poultry, and other foods has followed. While irradiation has been used for many decades, there is still controversy about this method.

Some critics claim this technology produces free radicals that lead to cancer, birth defects, and acute radiation poisoning. However, Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research & Policy, emphasizes that the amount of radiation required to kill dangerous microorganisms is low. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has "evaluated the safety of irradiation over the last 50 years and found it to be safe."

Critics also argue that high levels of irradiation would ruin the taste, color, and texture of food. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does say that taste may be slightly altered, the nutritional value is not affected. To prevent changes that would result in lower quality food, there are ways to measure the dose of irradiation that will be needed to kill the microorganisms in a particular kind of food.

Michael Jacobson is the director of a non-profit group called Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jacobson has spoken out against irradiation because he believes it is an expensive process that will allow the meat industry to continue unsanitary processing practices. Microorganisms, like E. coli, can live inside of seemingly healthy food animals, like cattle. During the slaughtering process, these microorganisms are released, contaminating the meat. The CDC claims, however, that this contamination can be resolved with careful planning. Coupling sanitation programs with irradiation is, according to the CDC, the most effective way to ensure the safety of meat products.

The CDC says that most consumers, once they learn about the irradiation process, will buy irradiated food. Ultimately, the choice is yours. Consider the potential benefits and risks. You will know if a product has been irradiated because of the international symbol, called the radura (shown here). The radura can be any color, and it is accompanied by the phrase "treated by irradiation." In the United States, foods approved for this process include: wheat flour, white potatoes, pork, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, poultry, and meat.

RESOURCES:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

http://www.cdc.gov/

US Food and Drug Administration

http://www.fda.gov/

CANADIAN RESOURCES:

Health Canada

Food and Nutrition

http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/index-eng.php

References:

Food irradiation. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.htm#consumers. Updated October 2005. Accessed March 22, 2010.

Food irradiation, position of American Diabetes Association. J Am Diet Assoc. 2000;100:246-253.

Food irradiation questions and answers. University of Minnesota website. Available at: http://www.health.state.mn.us/. Accessed March 8, 2008.

Food irradiation—what is it? Iowa State University, Food Safety website. Available at: http://www.extension.iastate.edu/foodsafety/irradiation/. Updated August 2006. Accessed March 22, 2010.

Food-related illness and death in the United States. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no5/mead.htm. Updated September 1999. Accessed March 22, 2010.

Glow-in-the-dark food? The Free Library website. Available at: http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Glow-in-the-dark+food%3F-a015504386. Accessed March 22, 2010.

Inspection insights: a useful food safety tool: irradiation technology. JAMA. 1996;209(3):533.

Irradiation and food safety. United States Department of Agriculture website. Available at: http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Irradiation_and_Food_Safety/index.asp. Updated September 2005. Accessed March 22, 2010.

Irradiation: a safe measure for safer food. FDA Center on Food Safety and Applied Nutrition website. Available at: http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdirrad.html. Accessed March 8, 2008.

Meng J, Doyle MP. Emerging issues in microbiological food safety. Annual Reviews in Nutrition. 1997;17:225-275.

Statement of Michael Jacobson, executive director, on FDA's approval of irradiation for red meat products. Center for Science in the Public Interest website. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org. Published December 2, 1997. Accessed March 8, 2008.

Tauxe RV. Emerging foodborne diseases: an evolving public health challenge. Emerg Infect Dis. 1997;3(4):425-34. Review.

Why oppose food irradiation? Public Citizen website. Available at: http://www.citizen.org/cmep/foodsafety/food_irrad/articles.cfm?ID=11803. Accessed on March 3, 2008.

Last reviewed May 2012 by Peter J. Lucas, MD

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.