Sierran Masthead

Irradiation: Coming to a Store Near You?

By Deborah Garretson, Chair, Confined Animal Feeding Operations Subcommittee, Hoosier Chapter

Food irradiation is being widely promoted by industry groups as a way to kill pathogens. In the wake of recent recalls, regulators are clearing the way for irradiation, and several types of meat are already being irradiated.

The USDA recently approved a new rule allowing the irradiation of imported fruits and vegetables that make up approximately 40 percent of the produce consumed in the United States.

Irradiation, however, is not designed to protect consumers. It is designed to enlarge industry profits by increasing the shelf life of food and allowing faster processing of meat without having to ensure that meat is free of fecal material. Consumers are not enamored by the idea of irradiated foods. To boost consumer confidence, industries are repackaging the image of irradiation to make it more palatable to the consumer. One way they hope to sell the idea of irradiation is by calling it “cold pasteurization” because we have a long history of thinking that pasteurization is a positive thing.

Another selling effort is using the green symbol “radura,” which looks like something you would find on a health food package. The radura is a symbol described by the FDA Consumer as “a solid circle representing the energy source, above two petals, which represent the food. Five breaks in the outer circle depict rays from the energy source.”

Some of the jargon has been changed. For many years the amount of radiation absorbed by a substance has been measured by Radiation Absorbed Dose, or “rads.” Radiation is now referred to in terms of “grays” (GY) instead of rads. A single gray is the equivalent of 100 rads. One thousand grays equal 1 kiloGray (1 kGy). So if your meat is zapped with 1 kiloGray dose, it sounds a lot better than 100,000 rads, doesn’t it?

Proponents of irradiation say this technology will kill pathogens in food by exposing it to ionizing radiation. Food gets a dose equivalent to tens of millions of chest X rays. The idea for this came from the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, now the Department of Energy, when nuclear waste from military weapons production in the early 1950s became a big problem. Nuclear waste is still a problem today. Irradiation technology is one way to transfer federally developed cesium-137 and cobalt-60 to the commercial sector.

What proponents of irradiation don’t talk about is that this process kills many of the vitamins in food as well as helpful microflora. Worse, it creates a new class of chemicals called “radiolytics” that do not occur naturally anywhere on earth. Not only are these new chemicals present when irradiated meat is purchased, they can change when food is fried or overcooked.

Another concern is that while E.coli is a threat to human health, anywhere between one and ten percent will remain after meat is irradiated.

According to Dr. George Tritsch of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, “The remaining E.coli will be radiation-resistant, and no research has been done on the impact that these new microorganisms will have on our health.”

If the USDA had to do research on the irradiation of food using the standards required of universities for human subject research, we would not see irradiated food for a very long time, if ever. Therefore, it makes good sense to attempt to avoid irradiated food.

Irradiation should not be a substitute for cleaning up foods that are contaminated due to unhygienic production lines. It is not a substitute for fresh food or for humane, rigidly inspected food producing facilities. Grocery stores need to know now that consumers will not buy irradiated food.

Copyright © 2007 Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club, all rights reserved.[05/31/03]efp

Summer 2003