Irradiation, or as it is sometimes euphemistically called, "cold pasteurization," is a process in which food is submitted to ionized radiation in order to kill bacteria. This is described as a tool towards greater food safety by some, and as a frightening way of passing off tainted food as edible to others. It will probably come as no surprise that I fall into the latter group.
The first problem I have with this process is the fact that irradiation not only kills "harmful germs" but also many of the beneficial vitamins and enzymes found in fresh food. A potato treated with irradiation may take longer to spoil, but it is not as wholesome and nutritious as an untreated potato. Irradiation not only affects the nutritional value (and taste!) of food, but it actually produces carcinogenic chemicals in certain foods. Studies of laboratory animals fed irradiated food developed chromosomal damage, tumors, kidney damage, and other problems!
In addition to the health damage irradiated foods cause, irradiation plants are dangerous places that produce toxic waste and dangerous conditions for their workers. Do we really need to add more radioactive waste to that already plaguing our environment from nuclear power? If irradiation causes all of these problems, why is it allowed to continue? The main reason is that it makes food keep "fresh" longer (i.e. they can pass it off as wholesome and sell it for a longer time) and it allows food tainted with substances (such as animal waste!) that you definitely do NOT want to eat (especially in meat) to pass through the inspection process free of germs (though the offensive matter is not actually removed.)
The "food borne illnesses" that we are supposedly being protected from are caused by bad hygiene in food processing, and irradiation is cheaper than cleaning up processing methods. It also makes money for companies that produce irradiation equipment. The solution to the problem of food borne illnesses is to make tougher sanitation laws for meat processing, because current methods are endangering public health. Animals should not be kept in cages for their entire lives because it's cruel, but also because they contract more diseases when they're cramped together in confined spaces. Animals should not be fed synthetic chemicals in order to make them grow fatter faster or produce more milk, because these chemicals end up in the human food supply and the environment.
We need to fix the source of the problem, not just apply another expensive and polluting "cure" that affects the quality of food and public health for the worse. I am not opposed to people eating meat, but I do oppose many of the factory farm methods of producing it. Ever wonder why steaks at certain restaurants are so amazing? The chefs there know that cows are meant to graze in a field of grass, not to live in a high-density feed lot and be force-fed chemically enhanced soy meal. Organic grass fed beef is not a radical idea, it's what beef always was until very recently, and it tastes divine, just like "back in the old days."
When the government approved irradiation for use on our food supply, they considered the results of only 5 of over 400 studies. Our current Undersecretary of Food Safety, Dr. Elsa Murano, formerly worked at Texas A&M University, an institution that has a ten year funding deal from a company that makes irradiation equipment. Wealthy agribusiness associations (who contribute to many election campaigns) have fought anything that blocks their members' pursuit of profit. This is the main reason they exist. One even sued Oprah for telling the public about the problems with modern methods of producing beef on her show. They couldn't quite overturn the First Amendment for that one however and she won the suit.
Few consumers would willingly eat irradiated food. This is why it seems very sinister to me that the US Congress has recently passed a "farm bill" into law that makes it okay for companies to call irradiated food "pasteurized." This provision was suggested by one senator with financial interests in agribusiness, and voted in by enough others to become law. They have decided to try to get around public concerns about irradiation by changing the labels.
Doesn't the "radura" (the symbol used to indicate irradiation with the broken circle around it) look a lot like the symbol for the Environmental Protection Agency (top)? I can only imagine what the discussions in the marketing meetings where that was designed must have been like... Proponents of irradiation will talk of this being something that will help solve "world hunger" when in fact world hunger is caused by the uneven distribution of food by governments and corporations more interested in economic power than feeding people. There is enough food to feed everyone in the world. Hunger is a political issue. The benefits of food irradiation all favor the food and irradiation industries, and the drawbacks all affect the health of the consumer.
When consumers wonder about the safety of irradiated food, they are often dismissed by many in scientific circles as being "alarmist" or "uninformed." We should apparently just trust what they tell us, since they are the real experts. It is important to remember that scientific "proof" is subject to bias and error, especially when there is such a large amount of money at stake. Food irradiation research is often sponsored by those who would benefit from it being declared safe, sometimes under the name of specially created scientific institutes that also include extensive marketing and public relations departments who are experts in ways to make the public swallow their rhetoric.
Perhaps if no harmful effects are found the researchers didn't search deeply enough to find anything or take the time to wait for long-term effects. It is important to remember that in the past, scientific "experts" told us that DDT and other substances ultimately discovered to be toxic were safe as well. If you are concerned about irradiated foods, write to your local grocery store with your voice of protest over food irradiation, and whenever possible, buy certified organic food.
Visit the links below including the opposing viewpoints and decide for yourself!
the recent "Farm Bill" includes a provision to allow manufacturers to call food irradiation "pasteurization." Many feel this is an attempt to whitewash the issue with PR.
Frequently Asked Questions about Food Irradiation
a site sponsored by the US Department of Health. As I stated above, the current administration is pro-irradiation. The only other link people are directed to for further information is another pro-irradiation site.
Food Irradiation: Available Research Indicates that Benefits Outweigh Risks
a document from the General Accounting Office of the US government reporting to congress that irradiation is OK. Many of the questions and concerns are not addressed.
When food is irradiated, it is loaded onto a conveyor belt and passed through a radiation cell where it is showered with beams of ionizing radiation produced by high radioactive isotopes. The radiation can inhibit ripening and kill certain bacteria and molds that induce spoilage, so that food looks and tastes fresh for up to several weeks.
The process does not make food radioactive and does not change the food's color or texture in most cases. Does it destroy nutrients? Does it create radiolytic products in food after exposure that may cause genetic damage? Is irradiation less dangerous than some of the other chemicals added to foods as preservatives? These questions are being hotly debated.