To Your Health
Questions and Answers About Irradiated Food

by Paulette Avery, R.N., M.S.N.

By this summer, you may be grilling irradiated red meat on your backyard barbecue. Is food irradiation good or bad? What will it mean for consumers? Here s some basic information on the process to help you decide where you stand on the issue.

Why irradiate food? The process kills bacteria in food that could cause food poisoning, such as the E. coli poisonings that killed four children and made 700 other people sick after eating contaminated meat from Jack-in-the-Box in 1993. Tainted food killed 10,000 people last year, and as many as 130,000 more may have been ill as the result of eating bad ground beef.

How is it done? Raw food susceptible to bacterial contamination is carried by conveyor into an irradiation chamber, where radiant energy breaks up the DNA of the bacteria, rendering them incapable of reproduction or continued life, but without harming the food.

Is food irradiation safe? Many people say it is. Among the supporters are the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Meat Institute. According to a position statement by the American Dietetic Association, "the safety of food irradiation has been examined more extensively than safety issues of any other food technology or additive. More than 40 years of multispecies, multigenerational animal studies have shown no toxic effects from eating irradiated foods. Additionally, human volunteers consuming up to 100 percent of their diets as irradiated food have shown no ill effect."

What changes does irradiation cause in food? Aside from killing bacteria, the irradiation process may cause raw meat to darken or to have an "off" odor. But once the meat is cooked, test panels found no difference in the flavor or appearance of treated meat.

Will irradiated meat cost more? Most likely, yes. Meat processors estimate it will cost consumers an extra three to six cents per pound. Untreated meat will still be available as an alternative.

Is food irradiation used elsewhere? Yes, 40 other countries already use the process. Although most of us don t know it, we may have already eaten irradiated food. Federal regulations allow the irradiation of poultry, pork, fresh fruits, spices, and white potatoes. These treated foods are available mostly in specialty stores and are clearly marked. But hospitals and restaurants may serve irradiated foods without notification to the consumer.

What do opponents of food irradiation have to say? Opponents include consumer and nutrition groups who say the process itself has risks. One report from New Jersey Medical School says that animals who ate irradiated food had miscarriages and lost weight. It also stated that vitamins were damaged in foods treated with radiation.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest the group that has told us the nutritional horrors of fast food and movie popcorn is on the fence about irradiating food. "It should be a last resort," says Executive Director Michael Jacobson, used only if other methods such as steam-cleaning carcasses and inoculating animals are not successful.

Fifty years from now, food irradiation may be considered as safe and sensible as milk pasteurization is now. But most of us resist change, and we often feel threatened by new processes. There are those who still believe the fluoridation of water is dangerous in spite of its safety record and proven benefits to dental health. So weigh the added safety of irradiated foods against the possible ill effects, and make up your own mind.

Paulette Avery is a registered nurse and a freelance writer specializing in health issues.