Treating food with powerful electromagnetic radiation in order to kill harmful bacteria—yes, that sounds extremely freaking scary and awful. So it's no surprise that food irradiation is the subject of some debate in the food world: Governments and health agencies stand behind it, but a number of consumer advocacy groups say it's a failed and potentially harmful system.
Feel like you're a little late to this great food-tech debate? Don't worry: We'll get you up to speed. Here's what you need to know:
What is food irradiation?
It's the process of subjecting food to x-rays, gamma rays, or electron beams. This kills bacteria that cause illness, bacteria that cause spoilage, and insects that might be hiding out in the food.
Which foods are allowed to be irradiated?
To date, the FDA has approved beef and pork, crustaceans (lobster, shrimp, and crab), fresh produce, mollusks (scallops, mussels, clams, oysters), poultry, seeds for sprouting, eggs, spices, and seasonings.
How will I know if a food has been irradiated?
By law, irradiated food must bear the words "Treated by Radiation" or "Treated with Irradiaiton" along with the radura (below), which is the international symbol for food irradiation.
Do irradiated foods cost more?
Yes, according to the University of Wisconsin Madison's Food Irradiation Education Group. It increases the price of fruits and veggies by 2 to 3 cents per pound and poultry and meat products by 3 to 5 cents per pound.
Is irradiated food radioactive?
No. "This cannot happen," explained John P. Hageman, radiation safety officer and principal scientist at Southwest Research Institute. "The energy of the x-rays or energetic electrons used in food irradiation do not have enough energy to create new atoms that are radioactive."
So, irradiated food is safe?
A lot of really important groups say yes: Food irradiation is supported by the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization, the WHO, the CDC, the FDA, the International Atomic Energy Association, and the American Dietetic Association. Then again, plenty of other trustworthy groups don't support it: The Organic Consumer's Association and the Center For Food Safety, for example, have expressed dissent.
The anti-irradiation camp says the process can leave harmful chemical compounds called radiolytic products in your food, which can damage DNA, according to the Center for Food Safety. The Center also cites research that feeding irradiated food to lab animals can stunt their growth, and that irradiation can cause formation of other harmful chemicals (including benzene, a carcinogen) in food.
"This is not the case," Hageman argued. "It's a major misconception that food irradiation will create harmful compounds at levels that are harmful."
He explains it like this: All kinds of heating or processing causes alterations to food, some of which may be harmful (a prime example: heterocyclic amines, compounds that form when you char or brown meat, have been associated with several different types of cancer). "Heating food transforms the molecules in food. Food gets brown, cake mixes go from liquid to a solid. The chemical changes occurring in cooked food are the same type of changes that irradiation can cause," Hageman said. "You should not be concerned about any harmful compounds in irradiated food—no more that you are worried about drinking pasteurized milk or eating chicken cooked [at home] to remove botulism."
OK, but does irradiation actually work?
Yes and no. It does kill dangerous bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, and that's nothing to sneeze at. "But there are certain pathogens, including botulism and all viruses, which are not killed by irradiation," said Bill Freese, science policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety.
Also important: Irradiation does nothing to treat the actual cause of foodborne illness. There are many reasons that a food can be infected (see: The Totally Disgusting Ways Food Gets Contaminated), but among the biggest offenders are concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs.
"CAFOs generate tons of manure, and manure contains pathogens, which get into irrigation water, which then get on produce," said Freese. "Food irradiation is a band aid for the festering wound of this really unhealthy food system."
Can it degrade nutrients in food?
Yes—but so does basically anything else you do to food after you harvest it (microwaving, roasting, steaming, even just exposing it to light and air).
Some sources assure you that irradiation doesn't affect nutrient quality. "That's complete nonsense," Freese said. He's right: It took us all of five minutes to find evidence that irradiation can degrade nutrients. It decreased vitamin C content in honey, leaf lettuces, and baby spinach. It decreased folate in spinach, green cabbage, and Brussels sprouts. Another study found irradiation slashed vitamin A in millet by nearly 89 percent. Still, 40 governments worldwide have embraced the procedure—so the nutrient loss may be worth the anti-bacterial benefit.
What's the bottom line?
A swath of large regulatory agencies say that irradiated food is safe and beneficial. And, for people with compromised immune systems, irradiation might even be a better choice, since it kills at least some harmful pathogens.
But Freese and the CFS are right: Irradiation isn't an ideal solve. In a perfect world, farms wouldn't have the unsanitary conditions that allow pathogens to flourish in the first place. Alas, such a world does not exist at the moment.
For now, if you don't want to eat irradiated food, you don't have to. In fact, Freese said, irradiated products already perform poorly in the marketplace because of consumer concerns, and just because a food product can be irradiated, doesn't mean it is. Just buy organic (the National Organic Standard prohibits food irradiation) or check the packaging.