The Problem of Food Poisoning: Is Irradiation the Answer?
There are millions of cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year, some causing deaths. Still, many other cases are never reported because many people assume they have a "24-hour bug." But, in some instances, symptoms are much more serious and can spawn dreadful consequences.
Scientists and the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) both agree that irradiation has the potential to significantly reduce the number of deaths caused by E. coli bacteria. Although not all bacteria will be destroyed, irradiation could substantially reduce the number of disease-causing microorganisms in meat.
Low-dose irradiation would nearly wipe out other deadly microbes as well, such as Salmonella and Camphylobacter that contaminate fresh meat and poultry. Trichinella spiralis in fresh pork, and beef and pork tapeworms will also be destroyed. Vibrio infections caused by consuming contaminated raw shellfish can be prevented with irradiation. However, although these measures will eradicate bacteria, cooking meat thoroughly is still essential. Even after irradiation, meat can become recontaminated from other sources.
Are There Side Effects to Food Irradiation?
The process of irradiation does not leave food radioactive. It works by passing energy through the food, killing potentially lethal microorganisms and leaving zero residual radiation. Unlike nuclear radiation, irradiation does not emit neutrons and therefore doesn't leave its target capable of "melt down" or chain reactions.
Irradiation was first approved for insect deinfestation of wheat in 1963. Since then, approval for fruits, vegetables, spices, and poultry has followed. Although irradiation has been used for several decades, has it been fully accepted by the public? Well, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), test marketing shows that consumers are willing to buy irradiated foods. At least half will buy the irradiated food, if given a choice between irradiated product and the same product non-irradiated.
The Pros and Cons of the Irradiation Issue
However, anti-irradiation activists do not believe the government has sufficiently proven that irradiation is safe for food. But approval of irradiation for red meat was based on the FDA's thorough review of the worldwide scientific literature. Both its effectiveness and safety have been confirmed.
Some critics claim this technology produces free radicals that lead to cancer, birth defects, and acute radiation poisoning. But Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH., state epidemiologist and chief of the acute disease epidemiology section at the Minnesota Department of Health, emphasizes that the amount of radiation required to kill dangerous microorganisms on meat is so low that the free radicals formed during the process is actually far less than that formed by microwaving, or by any other home cooking practices.
High levels of irradiation would ruin the taste, color, and texture of the meat and consumers would reject it. Therefore, the minimum dose required to kill deadly microorganisms is used in this process. Manufacturers must follow strict guidelines regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a public health agency in the United States Department of Agriculture.
Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, DC has spoken out against irradiation. In a December 1997 press release, he stated that irradiation is no silver bullet for improving the safety of meat products. Although he does not believe irradiation is unsafe, he believes it is an expensive process that will allow the meat industry to continue filthy processing practices.
"Consumers prefer to have no filth on their meat than filth sterilized by irradiation," said Jacobson.
Reservoirs of deadly organisms have been found living inside seemingly healthy food animals, such as cattle. The meat becomes contaminated by the mere act of slaughter because the animal's own internal microorganisms spill onto itself when cut open.
But the CDC claims that post-slaughter contamination can be resolved with careful planning. Coupling careful sanitation programs with irradiation is the most effective way to ensure the safety of meat products. And according to the CDC, consumers are more likely to accept the way their food is handled if it is made clean first followed by irradiation or pasteurization to make it safe.
Anti-irradiation activist Michael Colby of the organization Food & Water believes that the responsibility for food safety lies with the individual rather than within the confines of a government mandate. He is against irradiation for more of a philosophical reason—he believes people must take an active part in producing and managing the food they eat.
Although this sounds noble in theory, there is still a large segment of the population that will continue to rely on manufacturers and importers for their food. And, because it may be a bit impractical for most people to begin raising their own chickens and cattle, and becoming completely self-sufficient, irradiation may be a practical alternative that appeals to many people. Maybe irradiation, a 20th-century technology, is a means to the end of this centuries-old public health nightmare.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Health and Human Services
US Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Canadian Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education
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Food irradiation questions and answers. University of Minnesota website. Available at: http://www.health.state.mn.us/.
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Last reviewed March 2008 by Marcin Chwistek, MD
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