Natural Life Magazine

Ask Natural Life:
Is Food Irradiation Dangerous?
by Wendy Priesnitz

food irradiation symbolQ: I recently bought a bag of potatoes and when I got home, I read on the bag that they were “treated by irradiation.” Given the nuclear power plant problems in Japan a few years ago, I am alarmed. Is this dangerous?

A: Food irradiation is sometimes called “cold pasteurization.” It is the process of exposing food to a high dose of energy ionizing radiation using Gamma rays, X-rays or electron beam radiation.

It is used to prevent food poisoning by reducing the level of parasites and harmful bacteria such as E.coli in ground beef and Salmonella and Campylobacter in poultry; to prevent spoilage by destroying bacteria, molds, and yeasts; to control insect and parasite infestation; and to increase shelf life by slowing the ripening of fresh fruits and vegetables.

It doesn’t work for all foods; tomatoes, leafy vegetables, and citrus fruit become more prone to molds and rot after irradiation, due to cell wall damage. Nor does it entirely eliminate microorganisms or address viruses or prions (which are responsible for CJD or so-called Mad Cow Disease).

Food irradiation is not a new technology. It was tested on strawberries in Sweden in 1916, and the first American and British patents were issued around the same time. It wasn’t used much until 1953, when U.S. President Eisenhower announced the “Atoms for Peace Program,” which was designed to shift public attention away from nuclear weapons and onto other uses of nuclear technology. The U.S. Department of Defense began intensive research into food irradiation at that time.

In 1983, a worldwide standard was adopted for irradiated foods by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a body of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. The standard was based on the findings of a Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation, which also involved the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Irradiation is endorsed as safe by the Centers for Disease Control and the American Medical Association, as well as the many national governments that allow its use. However, consumers, health and environmental activist organizations, and some medical researchers are not convinced that its benefits outweigh its possible dangers. There is a patchwork of regulations in various countries and states, with some only allowing irradiation for spices, for instance, as in the European Union (despite stricter regulations in individual member countries.) Labeling laws also vary widely.

Supporters of irradiation are fond of saying that food undergoing irradiation does not become radioactive “any more than luggage passing through an airport X-ray scanner or teeth that have been X-rayed.” Indeed, your irradiated chicken leg is not going to glow. But critics have other concerns.

Ionizing radiation has sufficient energy to knock electrons out of the atoms of the material bombarded. This can break its molecular structure, leaving positively and negatively charged particles called ions or free radicals (implicated in cancer and heart disease). The ions are chemically very active and easily recombine or initiate chemical reactions with surrounding material. Thus, ionizing radiation alters the chemical structure of material, which in turn can have biological effects on the behavior of living organisms. However, scientific studies are conflicting on whether food chemistry changes are of any great significance.

Both supporters and critics tend to focus on research that supports their position. In my own scanning of the pros and cons, two studies stood out. In 1979, a scientist with the Hungarian Academy of Sciences reviewed the existing literature to document the potential biological effects of eating irradiated foods. In hundreds of studies, he found 7,191 neutral effects, 185 beneficial effects, and 1,414 negative effects. The negative effects included chromosome changes, organ damage, tumors, and premature death. The long-term consequences of some of these and their interrelationship with other health risks such as malnutrition and environmental toxins (like pesticide residues on food) are not well understood. Inexcusably, there are few studies on the effects of feeding babies or children diets containing irradiated foods.

In 2004, in the journal International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health, researchers from the University of Texas published their paper “Health concerns regarding consumption of irradiated food.” They wrote: “Food irradiation is being promoted as a simple process that can be used to effectively and significantly reduce food-borne illnesses around the world. However, a thorough review of the literature reveals a paucity of adequate research conducted to specifically address health concerns that may directly result from the consumption of irradiated food.”

Some cancer researchers claim there is a great deal of research that suggests we should steer clear of irradiated food. At a 2001 symposium sponsored by the Cancer Prevention Coalition and held at the University of Illinois, Dr. Samuel Epstein, chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and emeritus professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois' School of Public Health was unequivocal. He said, "It defies belief that our government can remain in such a severe state of denial. Every man, woman and child who takes a bite of irradiated food increases their chance of getting cancer. It is no exaggeration to say that our government has turned the American people into guinea pigs."

We also know that irradiation diminishes some vitamin levels. Four vitamins are recognized as being highly sensitive to irradiation: B1, C (ascorbic acid), A (retinol) and E (a-tocopherol). To a lesser degree, it may affect the other B vitamins, as well as vitamin K.

As far as preventing food-borne illnesses, irradiation isn’t a silver bullet. It kills ninety-five percent of the bacteria in food, but not all bacteria are harmful to your health and some signal that food has gone bad, subjecting us to illness from eating food that appears fresh but isn’t. There is also some concern that the bacteria which cause food poisoning could become resistant to irradiation over time, in the same way that over-prescription of antibiotics has created antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria.

Aside from concerns about irradiated food, we need to consider the process itself, which is a high energy user and has environmental hazards.

Irradiation uses the radioactive materials cesium-137 and cobalt-60. According to the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (a joint FAO/International Atomic Energy Association initiative), “Over the past thirty years, there have been a few major accidents at industrial irradiation facilities that caused injury or death to workers because of accidental exposure to a lethal dose of radiation.”

The more popular irradiation becomes, the more irradiators there will be, and the more likelihood of a serious accident in transport, operation, or disposal of the nuclear materials. Food irradiation facilities have already contaminated the environment, according to the Organic Consumers Association, which describes one incident in 1988, where radioactive water escaped from an irradiation facility in the state of Georgia. In Hawaii in 1967 and New Jersey in 1982, radioactive water from irradiation facilities was flushed into the public sewer systems.

Many organizations argue that irradiation is a risky way to cover up problems within the food industry: The dirty, unsafe, and inhumane conditions at factory farms, slaughterhouses, and food processing facilities are ultimately responsible for large-scale food contaminations. “While the public is being sold on irradiation as a solution to the growing crisis of food-borne illness, this technology is used to satisfy the food industry‚ ever-growing craving to cut costs and increase profits,” writes Wenonah Hauter, the Executive Director of the organization Food and Water Watch, in her book Zapped! Irradiation and the Death of Food (Food and Water Watch Press, 2009)

However, money talks. Government and taxpayers – not the industry – cover much of the regulation and clean-up costs associated with irradiation, making it a cheaper solution for food processors than cleaning up their act. Food irradiation is also a solution for a nuclear industry plagued by bomb test ban treaties and the recent surge in public concern about the safety of nuclear power.

In the end, it is up to each of us to decide how much faith we have in government agencies’ assurances of safety. Irradiated food must be labeled in many countries, so you can avoid it if you wish. But, since irradiated ingredients like spices in processed foods don’t usually have to be labeled, the only sure way to avoid it is to buy organic brands.

Wendy Priesnitz is the co-founder and editor of Natural Life Magazine and a journalist with over 40 years of experience. This article was first published in Natural Life in 2011 and has been updated.


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