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How safe is food irradiation?

Killing bacteria may eliminate food-borne illnesses, but concerns still persist
/ Source: TODAY

More than 300,000 people become sick from food-borne illnesses each year in the U.S., and almost 5,000 of those die. Could food irradiation make the food supply safer? In this column, I’ll take a closer look at this hotly debated form of cold sterilization.

What is food irradiation?
Food irradiation is the process by which energy is used to kill bacteria, including E. coli, in a variety of foods ranging from meats and poultry, to fruits and vegetables, to spices. It is the same as energy used in microwave ovens. This process, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has been used in this country since 1972. Not only does it kill bacteria, but irradiation can also extend the shelf life of produce, making fruits and vegetables less susceptible to spoilage.

Think of irradiation as a method of sterilization, just like pasteurization for milk, which uses heat to kill bacteria. Irradiation uses bands of light energy to kill the bacteria, and that’s why it’s known as cold sterilization. We’d never think of drinking milk that was not pasteurized, but many people are concerned with irradiated foods. Why? Contrary to what it sounds like irradiated food is NOT radioactive. In fact, scientific studies show no safety issues with consuming irradiated food. Astronauts consume irradiated foods in space and so do hospitalized patients who have compromised immune systems.

Is food irradiation safe?
More than 40 years of scientific research show that this process is safe. The radiant energy kills the bacteria in the food, but it does not touch the food directly. Most people do not know that irradiated wheat flour, spices and potatoes have been available in this country for the past 18 years. Food irradiation is a widely studied food processing technology. The FDA has approved irradiation for beef, pork, lamb and poultry, fruits and vegetables, grains, and spices – both to kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of foods.

Does irradiation affect nutrition?
The FDA has approved the use of cold sterilization for a variety of foods. While meats and other protein sources show no change in texture or nutrient content, particular fruits and vegetables can show some change in texture (mushiness), and some reduction in nutrient content. However, the food’s flavor appears to be unaffected. Irradiation does not cook food.

What are the concerns?
Some consumer groups believe that the radiant energy used to kill the bacteria in foods alters the food composition and makes it dangerous. More than 40 years of scientific evidence shows that this is not true. (One study showed that nine out of 10 people would try irradiated food, once they understood the process.)

However, other critics contend that the use of this technology will mask the underlying problems in food manufacturing, which produce bacteria in the first place. That is, if food is irradiated, food producers will not pay attention to maximizing food safety in the manufacturing process.

Do irradiated foods make cooking safer?
While bacterial contamination can be largely reduced by cold sterilization, food safety rules still apply in handling raw meats and produce. Thorough hand washing after handling raw foods is a must. Avoid mixing raw and cooked meat products with your hands or with knives. Using a disposable cutting surface (a paper plate) or put your cutting board through the dishwasher. Restaurants have their own inspection regulations to ensure healthy food handling.

Dr. Fernstrom’s Bottom Line: Food irradiation can be a great help to reducing food-borne illness by killing harmful bacteria and retarding spoilage. It is safe and effective, but much confusion exists in its use. While available in some supermarkets, with greater consumer concerns about food borne illness, we may see these products appearing more regularly.

Madelyn Fernstrom, Ph.D., CNS,is the founder and director of the An associate professor of psychiatry, epidemiology, and surgery at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, Fernstrom is also a board-certified nutrition specialist from theAmerican College of Nutrition.

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand their lives and health. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician.