Image for ironIn the US, there are millions of cases of foodborne illnesses each year. For example, eating undercooked beef that is contaminated with E. 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, although 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, like using separate cutting boards for raw meat and other foods. And cooking meat thoroughly is still essential.

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.

Free Radicals

Some critics claim this technology produces free radicals that lead to cancer, birth defects, and acute radiation poisoning. But, 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), the agency has "evaluated the safety of irradiation over the last 50 years and found it to be safe."

Lower Quality Food

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.

Unsanitary Conditions

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. But, the CDC claims 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 Choice Is Yours

The CDC says that most consumers, once they learn about the irradiation process, will buy irradiated food. But, 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 US, foods approved for this process include: wheat flour, white potatoes, pork, fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices, poultry, and meat.