Food safety is a hot topic right now due to the devastating E. coli outbreak in Europe, killing at last count 26 people, sickening 2700, in 13 different countries. Food irradiation is now back on the table as a method to curb foodborne organisms in foods. The use of low-dose irradiation protects consumers from foodborne diseases by:
- Controlling mold in grains
- Sterilizing teas and spices for storage at room temperature
- Controlling insects and extending shelf life in fresh fruits and vegetables (inhibits the growth of sprouts on potatoes and onions and delays ripening in some fruits such as strawberries and mangoes.
- Destroying harmful bacteria in fresh and frozen beef, poultry, lamb and pork
Irradiated foods have been evaluated and approved for use in 40 countries and supported by various health agencies including the FAO, WHO, and the American Medical Association. Irradiation does not make food radioactive, nor does it noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of approved foods. Vitamins loss is minimal and comparable to amounts lost in other food processing methods such as canning.
Many consumers have strong negative emotions about irradiation of foods. Food producers do not want to irradiate foods if the public will not accept them and are not willing to pay for them. Once consumers understand the benefits, about half are willing to use them, but only one-quarter is willing to pay more.
Foods that have undergone irradiation require labeling, but products that use irradiated foods, as ingredients are not required to say so on the label. Foods that are approved for irradiation are:
- Fresh fruit (strawberries, citrus, papaya)
- Oysters, clams, mussels, scallops
- Raw beef, lamb poultry, pork
- Spices, tea
- Vegetables (iceberg lettuce, fresh spinach, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, sprout seeds)
Some foods are not candidates for irradiation. High-fat meats develop off-odors, egg whites turn milky, grapefruits become mushy, and milk products change flavor. Sterilized leafy greens aren’t on the market and overall sales of irradiated foods remain low.
Irradiation isn’t an excuse for dirty produce, says, Dr Michael Osterholm, a University of Minnesota infectious disease specialist. It’s far better to prevent contamination on the farm or in the processing plant than to try to get rid of it later. But it’s impossible to prevent all animal-borne bacteria in open fields. The source of the outbreak a couple of years ago in the U.S. with spinach was never identified, but one theory speculated that wild boars wandered through the fields.
Irradiation doesn’t kill viruses that sometimes are responsible for contaminated foods. Irradiation zaps foods with gamma rays or X-rays. About 15-18 million pounds of U.S. ground beef are irradiated every year, says Ron Eustice of the Minnesota Beef Council. Some stores use this as a selling point, but still many consumers are wary. The radiation label brings to mind the problems of Chernobyl and Japan nuclear plants as well as the whole idea of radiation being in the foods we eat. Not to worry, according to the FDA – low doses of radiation are used and no radioactive materials remain in the food.
If these outbreaks continue or the newly evolved strain of E. coli 0104, which is highly virulent, persists in the food supply, it may be time to start zapping.
- Don’t Kill My Burger! (time.com)