The Problem of Food Poisoning: Is Irradiation the Answer?
In the US, there are millions of cases of foodborne illnesses each year. The causes range from meats that are not cooked to the proper temperature to vegetables growing in contaminated soil. Foodborne illness can lead to can lead to hospitalization and, in severe cases death. Irradiation makes food safer by reducing or eliminating the number of harmful microorganisms that cause illness.
What Irradiation Eliminates
Irradiation can destroy contaminants found in raw meat, shellfish, produce, and other foods. Common microorganisms include:
- Escherichia coli (E. coli)
Different types of irradiation are used to kill these microorganisms, making food safer. You can do your part by:
- Cooking meat and shellfish to their proper temperature.
- Using separate utensils and cutting boards for raw meat and shellfish than you use for other foods.
- Frequently washing your hands with soap and warm water.
- Promptly refrigerating foods.
Addressing Consumer Confidence
Using the word irradiation is sometimes enough to cause alarm for consumers. The US Food and Drug Administration has tried to find a balance between full disclosure and avoiding undue alarm when it comes to product labeling.
Despite these attempts, many consumer groups led the charge that consumers did not want their food to be irradiated. Concerns among these groups included:
- Changes in food quality and nutritional value—The loss of nutrition is similar to (or less than) cooking or freezing food.
- Radioactivity in food—There is none. The energy passes through the food. The food does not come in contact with the energy source.
- Free radicals in food, which harm healthy cells in the body. Free radicals are associated with aging, cancer, and other diseases—Free radicals that are generated in the body are more harmful. Those in irradiated food are likely to be eliminated during digestion.
- Sanitary conditions—Food irradiation does not replace local, state, or federal requirements for sanitary conditions. Irradiation only takes place in government approved facilities.
Over time, consumers have learned about the process and now are more apt to buy food that has been irradiated.
The Choice Is Yours
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.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
US Food & Drug Administration
Estimates of food-borne illness in the United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/foodborneburden/index.html. Updated August 19, 2016. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Food irradiation. US Environmental Protection Agency website. Available at: https://www3.epa.gov/radtown/food-irradiation.html. Updated August 7, 2017. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Irradiation and food safety answers to frequently asked questions. US Department of Agriculture website. Available at: https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/production-and-inspection/irradiation-and-food-safety/irradiation-food-safety-faq. Updated December 20, 2016. Accessed October 17, 2017.
Irradiation of food and packaging: An overview. US Food & Drug Admistration website. Available at: https://www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/IrradiatedFoodPackaging/ucm081050.htm. Updated July 20, 2015. Accessed October 17, 2017.
O'Bryan CA, Crandall PG, Ricke SC, Olson DG. Impact of irradiation on the safety and quality of poultry and meat products: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2008;48(5):442-457.
Last reviewed October 2017 by EBSCO Medical Review Board Michael Woods, MD. FAAP Last Updated: 10/17/2017