World Truths

Irradiated Food

BACK to Main Page

For those not knowing what irradiated food is; one form of irradiation means subjecting foods we consume to gamma rays which are photons or bundles of energy; waves of electromagnetic radiation traveling the speed of light (286,000 miles/second) through space with no mass in a sine wave. When a gamma ray penetrates matter ionization of some of the cells of the material it passes through occurs, it breaks DNA molecules, changes molecular structure, and kills things that are alive in its path including bacteria.

This energy is not dissimilar to light from a light bulb, radio waves from a TV tower or cellphone tower, or the microwaves from your microwave oven that cook food. The energy used in food irradiation differs only in wave length, frequency, and thus energy level and also importantly; source. Gamma rays are emitted from the nucleus of an atom undergoing radioactive decay. Particle accelerators are another source of this high energy to subject food to which will kill the bacteria present.

The concept of destroying bacteria to preserve the food is good; the problem is what other molecular changes in the food were also a byproduct of destroying the bacteria. That is what is at issue; and it looks like the changes are significant enough to cause sufficient side effects for us to stop and take another look at whether or not the benefits outweigh the risks. Please consider the following two studies.

Ber Wenonah Hauter Director, Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, Public Citizen

For starters, numerous public opinion polls confirm that most Australians don't want to eat food that has been exposed to high doses of ionizing radiation. In a 1997 CBS News poll, 77 percent of people surveyed said they would not eat irradiated food including 91 percent of women. And, from 1998 to 2000, the percentage of shoppers who told the Food Marketing Institute that they would buy irradiated food dropped from 60 percent to 38 percent.

Understandably so, consumers have a visceral reaction against eating food that has been "treated" with a linear accelerator originally designed for the "Star Wars" program, or (perhaps one day) with radioactive waste left over from the production of nuclear weapons.

From a scientific perspective, the jury is still out on whether irradiated food is safe to eat. Early research, most of which was conducted or funded by the U.S. government, revealed a wide range of health problems in animals that ate irradiated food: premature death, fatal internal bleeding, a rare form of cancer, stillbirths and other reproductive problems, genetic damage, organ malfunctions and nutritional deficiencies, to name a few.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) admits that no toxicology research has been conducted in the past 20 years. Consequently, scientists have little or no idea whether irradiated food is safe for human consumption.

Moreover, the FDA failed to follow its own safety rules when the agency legalized the irradiation of beef, pork, chicken, turkey, fruit, vegetables, eggs, juice and sprouting seeds. Consumer organizations are actively challenging some of these questionable decisions.

From a nutritional perspective, exposing food to the equivalent of up to 1 billion chest x-rays depletes vitamins, often significantly. Especially vulnerable are A, the B-complex, C, E, and beta-carotene.

For instance, irradiation destroys up to 80 percent of the vitamin A in eggs, and about half of the thiamin in wheat flour. Essential fatty acids can be damaged, as can amino acids. And, beneficial microorganisms are killed along with the harmful ones.

Making matters worse still, because irradiation can significantly extend shelf life, food can be stored for days or weeks on trucks, ships and trains until it reaches the market. The food arrives even further depleted of vitamins, and tasting and smelling nothing like the way an apple, a tomato or a pork chop should taste and smell.

From a chemical perspective, irradiation blows apart the bonds that hold food molecules together, resulting in the formation of hundreds of new compounds.

Some of these compounds are known or suspected to cause cancer or birth defects, such as:




methyl ethyl ketone,

and toluene.

From an aesthetic perspective, irradiation can ruin the flavor, odor and texture of food. Beef can smell like a wet dog, pork can turn red, produce can become mushy, and eggs can become runny and difficult to cook.

Recently, a food irradiator in Florida was sued by a seafood company for allegedly over-irradiating thousands of boxes of gourmet salmon products, rendering them inedible.

From an economic perspective, irradiated meat can cost up to 75 cents per pound more than regular meat, and irradiated produce can double in price.

Finally, irradiation is not a panacea to killing food-borne pathogens. It cannot kill the prion that causes mad-cow disease. It cannot kill viruses, such as hepatitis and Norwalk virus. And, while irradiation does kill certain harmful microorganisms, it does nothing to remove the feces, urine and pus that often sullies meat in the slaughterhouse.

Consumers do not want to eat filth, whether it's been irradiated or not. Americans demand and deserve fresh, wholesome, safe food that has been grown and processed in clean environments.

The bottom line is that irradiation will not make food cleaner. It merely masks unhygienic slaughtering and processing practices, while corrupting nutritional integrity.

On behalf of our 150,000 members and American consumers at large, Public Citizen is running a national (and a growing international) campaign to inform people about the hazards associated with irradiated food. More than 200 organizations representing more than 1 million Americans have joined our


Public Citizen, April 11, 2001