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food irradiation

The preservation of food is essential to maintain life and growth. Irradiation is capable of improving the safety and quality of many foods. However…
  • there are three different irradiation technologies used with foods: gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays. Gamma ray irradiation utilises Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137 to penetrate foods to the depth of several feet. Compared to e-beam and X-ray methods (where the exposure time is seconds), gamma irradiation typically takes several hours;

  • irradiation works by disrupting the organic processes essential to life. The energy waves break the molecular bonds inside the genetic materials of pathogens, insects and organisms that cause foods to spoil;

  • research has shown that irradiation destroys at least 99.9% of common food-borne pathogens such as Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7, Listeria monocytogenes and Campylobacter jenuni. Based on such findings, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), USDA and the World Health Organization (WHO) have advocated the use of food irradiation to reduce the levels of food-borne pathogens in food supplies;

  • meanwhile, one should be reminded not to be careless in preparing a product solely because it is irradiated. There is still the potential of contamination by bacteria due to improper handling on the consumer’s part - as the FDA underlines;

  • in an April 2002 report, the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) stated that irradiation damages food by breaking up molecules and creating ‘free radicals’, killing some bacteria (both good and bad) but not all. Irradiation does not kill, for instance, mad cow disease, foot and mouth disease or viruses like hepatitis;

  • moreover, the long-term health consequences of eating irradiated food are unknown. According to the Global Resource Action Center for the Environment (GRACE), irradiation creates a complex series of reactions that literally rip apart the molecular structure of the food. This process creates known carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde, as well as new and unidentified chemicals that have not been tested for safety;

  • another complaint is that the irradiation process reduces the level of nutrients. According to GRACE, irradiation destroys and disrupts vitamins, protein, essential fatty acids and other nutrients in food – sometimes significantly. For example: up to 91% of vitamin B6 in beef, 80% of vitamin A in eggs, 50% of vitamin A in carrot juice, 37% of vitamin B1 in oats, and 30% of vitamin C in potatoes;

  • the International Council on Food Irradiation (ICFI) replies that - “As irradiation is a ‘cold process’, that is, it does not substantially raise the temperature of the food being processed, nutrient losses are small and often significantly less than losses associated with other methods of preservation such as canning, drying and heat pasteurisation.”

  • ICFI argues that “Irradiation of vitamins in pure solution results in considerable destruction of these compounds thus some reports in literature have overestimated the losses. For example, vitamin B1 (thiamin) in aqueous solution showed 50% loss after irradiation at 0.5 kGy, while irradiation of dried whole egg at that dose caused less than 5% destruction of the same vitamin.”

  • 4 vitamins are recognised as being highly sensitive to irradiation: B1, C (ascorbic acid), A (retinol) and E (a-tocopherol). However, according to ICFI, B1 is even more sensitive to heat than to irradiation. “It has been demonstrated that pork and beef sterilised by irradiation retain much more vitamin B1 than canned meat sterilised thermally” – they say;

  • for the agro-industry, anyway, food irradiation has many benefits. Irradiation extends the shelf life of food, so food lasts longer and can be shipped longer distances;

  • today there are about 170 industrial gamma irradiation facilities operating worldwide, a number of which process food in addition to other types of products. Most irradiation facilities are used for sterilising disposable medical and pharmaceutical supplies, and for processing other non-food items;

  • critics of food irradiation often attack the issue of radioactive irradiation, voicing concern about residual nuclear radiation. However, according to ICFI, none of the three processing methods leave any type of radioactivity in foods and - “The radiation processing industry is considered to have a very good safety record.”

  • over the past 30 years – ICFI argues - 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. All of the accidents happened because safety systems had been deliberately bypassed and proper control procedures had not been followed. None of these accidents endangered public health and environmental safety;
  • the European Parliament has refused to expand the use of irradiation for additional types of food (currently restricted to spices, dried herbs, and seasonings) due to lingering health and safety concerns.
Food irradiation applications
purpose dose kind of food
Low-dose (up to 1 kGy)   
(i) Inhibition of sprouting 0.05 - 0.15 Potatoes, onions, garlic, root ginger, yam etc.
(ii) Insect disinfestation and parasite disinfection 0.15 - 0.5 Cereals and pulses, fresh and dried fruits, driedfish and meat, fresh pork, etc.
(iii) Delay of physiological processes (e.g. ripening) 0.25 - 1.0 Fresh fruits and vegetables.
Medium-dose (1-10 kGy)   
(i) Extension of shelf-life 1.0 - 3.0 Fresh fish, strawberries, mushrooms etc.
(ii) Elimination of spoilage and pathogenic microorganisms 1.0 - 7.0. Fresh and frozen seafood, raw or frozen poultryand meat, etc
(iii) Improving technological properties of food 2.0 - 7.0 Grapes (increasing juice yield), dehydratedvegetables (reduced cooking time), etc.
High-dose (10-50 kGy)   
(i) Industrial sterilization (in combination with mild heat) 30 - 50 Meat, poultry, seafood, prepared foods, sterilizedhospital diets.
(ii)Decontamination of certain food additives 10 - 50 Spices, enzyme preparations, natural gum, etcand ingredients

source: International Council on Food Irradiation’s brochure [ www.icfi.org/pdf/faqs.pdf?PHPSESSID=17c137a8352ce2641a0c5d35de316445]

harmful eating | microbiological risks | anti microbial resistance | chemical risks | dioxins | mercury | hormones | avian influenza | BSE syndrome | BSE/ the bill | food irradiation | allergies & intolerances | consumers concerns
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