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Food irradiation: does it have a place in today's food industry?

Food irradiation is a food preservation method that requires food to be exposed to extremely high energy namely ionizing radiation. The energy source is usually from radioactive material such as cobalt-60 or cesium-137, or less often from machines that generate X-rays or electron beams. In the United States food irradiation is permitted for a variety of foods such as spices, fruits and poultry. However public resistance has limited test-marketing or the sale of irradiated foods to only a few foods sold in the North American market. Freezing facilities have been proposed for some food irradiation plants, for example if meat was to be irradiated. Is there a place in today's national and international food industry for food irradiation and would the freezing industry benefit from being part of multi-faceted irradiation facilities?

Six years ago before I began researching the issue of food irradiation I had heard mostly good things about it. I knew that it had been given approval by the World Health Organization and that various governments around the world were promoting it and supporting it, notably the Canadian and American governments. There were claims that it would reduce or perhaps eliminate food-borne bacterial disease, preserve and sterilize food, reduce or eliminate the need for some pesticides and reduce food storage losses.

But then I learned that there was considerable public opposition to it around the world and that there were also many reputable organizations who were opposed to food irradiation. Some international medical associations and well known physicians were expressing concerns about the safety of food irradiation. This led countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Norway and some American states such as Maine to ban food irradiation.

After spending the last five years researching and examining concerns about food irradiation and weighing them against the suggested benefits, my originally complacent attitude changed to one of concern. I feel that the benefits of food irradiation are overrated and are far outweighed by the enormous financial costs and the health and environmental risks of this nuclear technology.

The food irradiation industry and food irradiation research has been funded in large part by the American and Canadian governments through nuclear and military spending. As budgets are cut in these areas, it will become obvious that food irradiation cannot stand on its own. The capital and operating costs of food irradiation are enormous. These costs include the construction of the nuclear facility, continual purchase of large amounts of radioactive material, costs related to storage and disposal and clean-up of radioactive material (spills of radioactive materials in irradiators have already occurred) and additional costs to the food producer including shipping their food to and from the centralized facilities. The pesticides used by farmers prior to harvesting will not change since food irradiation is a post-harvest process. Irradiation can make some foods more susceptible to attack by moulds and fungi during storage and therefore will promote an increased use of post-harvest pesticides. The promotion of food irradiation by the first world nations to the developing nations is inappropriate. These developing countries are heavily burdened by debt and often do not even have clean water, storage facilities and refrigeration, and certainly do not have the infrastructure required for a highly technological and expensive nuclear food facility.

By nature of the process, food irradiation breaks down the food causing a wide range of undesirable organoleptic effects. There is a very fine line between the radiation dose needed to kill a sufficient number of pathogenic microorganisms in the food and "killing" the food itself, e.g. irradiated chicken or meat can become discoloured, develop a slimy appearance and develop an objectionable "wet dog" flavour at the doses required to reduce pathogenic bacteria. Food irradiation does not eliminate the toxins that may have already developed in a contaminated food, so it should not be used to "clean up" spoiled food. This process does not overcome or prevent future microbial contamination caused by poor food handling.

Can we say that food irradiation has been proven to be safe? Unfortunately no we can not. Although an enormous number of studies on irradiated food have been done, the study parameters do not hold up to modern day risk assessment. The studies did not use the usual 100 fold safety factor considered standard in animal safety studies, the byproducts of irradiation in food have not been adequately evaluated, the studies were often short-term, in some cases results were falsified, and most importantly, some adverse health effects have been found and these have not been given sufficient scrutiny.

Food irradiation causes unpredictable and erratic effects on the nutrients in food. There is evidence that the vitamin content in irradiated foods is reduced. This is a concern since food irradiation is an addition to other food processes, not a replacement. Irradiated foods will still need to be stored, frozen, cooked, and the nutrient losses will become additive.

The food industry goal for the 1990's and the 21st century must be the pursuit of ecologically sound methods to harvest and preserve the world's food supply. Food irradiation does not fit into this picture. We need an emphasis on increased implementation of strict preventive hygiene, water sanitation, adequate storage facilities and safe food preparation techniques. There needs to be continued emphasis on research and development into unique and safe preventative food preservation techniques such as modifying the gaseous atmosphere during storage and various freezing techniques. Food irradiation cannot compete with well-established and efficient food preservation industries such as the freezing industry. Over the last thirty years the area of frozen foods has undergone considerable growth and development. During the same time, the irradiation industry has stagnated. Millions of government research and promotion dollars have been unable to bring the industry into the marketplace nor has it quelled consumer resistance. Food irradiation does not seem to have a viable place in today's food preservation industry in which the frozen food industry is so well established. Assumably, the freezing industry may not want to invest in controversial and risky food irradiation facilities. The present strong consumer movement to achieving a more sustainable environment points to the demise of food irradiation as a food process. Food irradiation is dying not because it hasn't been given a chance but because it just cannot compete.

Karen Graham Registered Dietitian, Public Health Nutritionist in Canada and food and nutrition researcher. Author of the book "Food Irradiation. A Canadian Folly".
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Author:Graham, Karen
Publication:Frozen Food Digest
Date:Jul 1, 1993
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