I’ve heard that some foods are now being irradiated.

I’ve heard that some foods are now being irradiated. Why is this and what are the implications for our health and safety?

— Emily Worden, Monroe, CT

Food irradiation—used to kill bacteria, parasites and insects in food and to retard spoilage—is actually not new. Research began early in the 20th Century and picked up in the 1950s as part of the U.S. government’s “Atoms for Peace” effort to find non-wartime uses for nuclear technology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began approving food irradiation in 1963 to rid wheat and flour of insects, and to control the sprouting of potatoes. It later approved irradiation of spices and seasonings to fight insect infestations, then pork (to prevent trichinosis), poultry (to prevent salmonella and other food-borne bacterial pathogens) and more recently beef, lamb and pork (to kill E. coli).

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization (WHO) both endorse food irradiation, and over 40 countries have approved its use. WHO calls the practice “sound food-preservation technology
badly needed in a world where food-borne diseases are on the increase.”

In recent years a series of highly publicized events led to increased use of irradiation. In 1998, Sara Lee recalled millions of pounds of hot dogs and deli meat after 21 people died in a Listeria outbreak. In 2000, a young Milwaukee girl died after eating watermelon splashed with E. coli at a Sizzler restaurant. The E. coli, which made 600 other people sick, was traced to a Colorado meat plant. In 2002, ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of E. coli-contaminated beef. There are some 33 million cases of food-related illnesses each year, and 9,000 deaths. Food poisoning caused by E. coli affects up to 20,000 people annually.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says irradiation is safe, but critics charge otherwise. Irradiation does not make food radioactive, but it can create toxic byproducts and some “unique radiolytic products” that haven’t yet been identified or tested, says Dr. John W. Gofman of the University of California at Berkeley. “We know that irradiation causes a host of unnatural and sometimes unidentifiable chemicals to be formed within the irradiated foods,” he says. “Our ignorance about these compounds makes it simply a fraud to tell the public “we know” irradiated foods are safe to eat.” The Organic Consumers Association (OCA) claims that irradiation saps food’s nutritional value, and charges that irradiation deactivates raw food’s natural digestive enzymes and encourages fats to turn rancid.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, Director of Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), says that irradiation’s benefits outweigh its risks, but fears irradiation may be seen as a “silver bullet,” leading to neglect of effective sanitation measures in the production of food in the first place. Patty Lovera of Public Citizen agrees: “People are getting sick because cattle are crowded into small pens, sleeping in their own waste. Then they move through slaughter so quickly that mistakes cause fecal matter to contaminate the meat.” Even the pro-irradiation American Dietetic Association says: “the process is not a replacement for proper food handling practices.”

CONTACTS: U.S. Food and Drug Association, (888) 463-6332, www.fda.gov; Organic Consumers Association, (218) 226-4164, www.organicconsumers.org; Center for Science in the Public Interest; (202) 332-9110, www.cspinet.org; Public Citizen, (202) 588-1000, www.citizen.org; American Dietetic Association, (800) 877-1600, www.eatright.org.