The relentless pressure to supply safe foods to mass markets has led to major contamination problems arising in recent years. The food industry has responded by developing new methods to treat food, such as food irradiation. To some in the food industry, irradiation is a wonderful new technology that could solve many contamination problems without any apparent effects on the treated food. To the consumer, it is a new process that has unknown threats and benefits. Currently, 37 countries, including the United States, permit the use of irradiation and approximately 25 actually use it.
Irradiation will remain an expensive and little used technology until there is general acceptance of irradiated foods by consumers. The modern food industry has to make certain choices as to how and when it treats food during the food production cycle. It can start by reducing the level of microorganisms and pests in food by using chemical treatments and pesticides during growth. For this to be effective the food must then be protected against fresh contamination during transport and storage. An alternative approach is to do very little to the food as grown and harvested, but to treat it nearer to the point of consumption.
This is common with herbs and spices. The food industry will tend to choose the way it deals with contamination based on the economics of each case, in other words, the cheapest way possible. Even where food is produced relatively close to the point of consumption, it may have to be treated because contamination is inherent in the production process. This is why milk has to be pasteurized. Pasteurization is the most effective way of killing microorganisms with minimal effect on the food itself. Unfortunately, pasteurization can only be used on a very limited range of foods.
Poultry in much of the developed world is now infected with salmonella. In Europe, 75% of chicken sold is infected and in the US 60%. It is estimated that the US has some 2,000,000 cases of food poisoning as the result of consuming salmonella costing $2,540 million annually. Even in relatively advanced countries like the United Kingdom the authorities admit that the food contamination problem is out of control stating: the multiplicity of potential routes of contamination makes the elimination of microbiological contamination from poultry being presented for slaughter a virtual impossibility.
This need not be the case as has been demonstrated in Sweden. There it has taken 20 years of ruthless killing of any flock with a salmonella infection to achieve 99% of flocks free of salmonella. Poultry costs more as a result but the Swedish authorities and consumers clearly believe this is worth paying. It has been known since the last century that living organisms can be damaged or killed by exposure to certain forms of radiation.
The idea that radiation might be used to kill bacteria and other micro organisms in food was seriously proposed in the 1930s but the technology for producing radiation was too expensive and specialized for it to be used other than in experiments. The contamination problems mentioned above have led scientists to try to improve these techniques. The effects of irradiation on food vary much depending on the type of food and on the dosage level. Only a limited range of foods can be irradiated successfully, that is, leaving a food that is still wholesome enough to eat.
The main types of food that can be irradiated are meats, seafood, fruit, vegetables, herbs, and spices. In some foods the dose level is very critical, a slight overdose and the food acquires an unpleasant taste and texture. This is the case with eggs, for example. Everything in our environment, including food, contains trace amounts of radioactivity. This means that this trace amount (about 150 to 200 becquerels) of natural radioactivity (from elements such as potassium) is unavoidably in our daily diets. In countries where food irradiation is permitted, both the sources of radiation and their energy levels are regulated and controlled.
The irradiation process involves passing the food through a radiation field at a set speed to control the amount of energy or dose absorbed by the food. The food itself never comes into direct contact with the radiation source. The maximum allowable energies for electrons and X-rays two machine-generated sources of radiation that can be used ” are 10 million electron volts (MeV) and 5 MeV, respectively. Even when foods are exposed to very high doses of radiation from these sources, the maximum level of induced radioactivity, or radioactivity left present in the food, would be just one-thousandth of a becquerel per kilogram of food.
This is 2,000,000 times smaller than the level of radioactivity naturally present in food. There are many advantages to using irradiation to process food, for instance: it can kill insects and pests that infest food without harming the food itself. Irradiation can also kill or greatly reduce the levels of microorganisms such as salmonella and listeria. Irradiation also stops normal ripening and decay processes so that foods can be stored longer, as well as sterilizing foods making them fit to eat for sickly patients in hospitals.
Currently the FDA allows electron beam irradiation for meat, grains, fruits and vegetables, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, spices, seasonings, eggs, sterilizing medical products, such as surgical gloves, destroying bacteria in cosmetics, and purifying wool. If the food industry could have its way (the way most profitable for them), the only foods that would not be irradiated would be seafood, dairy (which is pasteurized), honey, coffee, chocolate, and oils (fats become rancid easily because of the free radical creation, so they wont be irradiated if they could be eaten raw).
Baked goods and dried legumes do not need irradiation. The advantages to food irradiation cannot be far in front of the disadvantages so here they are. Irradiation can only be used on a very limited range of foods, and it is expensive when it is being used. Irradiation also affects some important parts of a persons diet like the level of vitamin E. When irradiation is used, the level of vitamin E can be reduced by twenty-five percent and vitamin C by five to ten percent. Recommended doses of radiation will not kill all of the microorganisms.
Ninety percent of the germs and none of the viruses are killed so after the irradiation the food still has to be treated with care to avoid rapid reproduction by the remaining microorganisms. Irradiating foods can also cause new substances that were not in the food before. These substances are called radiolytic products, such as benzene, formaldehyde, and lipid peroxides. While not radioactive themselves, there is considerable controversy over whether these products are dangerous.
Some opponents of food irradiation state that if irradiation is put into wider use, people may become more careless about sanitation in food production facilities. Irradiation does not kill all the bacteria in a food and in a just few hours at room temperature, the bacteria remaining in meat or poultry after irradiation can multiply to the level existing before irradiation. Some bacteria, like the one that causes botulism, as well as viruses and prions (which are believed to cause Mad Cow Disease) are not killed by current doses of irradiation.
Free-market economists say irradiation is efficient, that it provides the cheapest possible food for the least possible risk. However, these economists are not concerned about the impaired nutritional quality of the food. They are not considering the environmental effects of large-scale corporate farming, the social costs of centralization of agriculture and loss of family farms, the potential long-term damage to human health, and the possibility of irradiation-resistant super-bacteria.
If irradiation is to be more widespread, a cheap and reliable detection system should be developed for monitoring organizations to use. The UN should also establish as set of skeletal regulations to ensure that every county irradiating consumer goods is labeling them as such. The priorities of worldwide governments should also be focused on farming clean, thereby eliminating contaminants as thoroughly as possible from the production chain, rather than killing off the harmful organisms at the last stage of production with radiation.
Clearly, the public needs to become better educated about the food we are buying. Too many times do we go into supermarkets and buy things because of their price, without really taking a good look the package, and put our trust solely in the people who are trying o turn a buck. While reading about the problem of food irradiation, I was reminded of the novel The Jungle where the greed of people like Gustavus Swift turned meat-packing plants into death traps and sold ground cardboard, rats, and fingers to the public as ?
fresh meat while sweeping the floors of the plant to recover the sliced-off bits and package them as potted meat. Clearly the food industry is driven by capitalism, and not by concern for the consumer, and although I am wholeheartedly in favor of capitalist businesses, I do think federal regulation needs to come into play not just in the United states, but in other countries where most of the people have no legal recourse at all if they fall ill or die as the result of unclean food.
Education of the consumer is the key to this problem, as is objective research. Governments around the world should be made to adhere to guidelines recommended by people whose main concern is the safe and healthy production of food, instead of the cheapest way to produce it, or what would be best for the businesses already irradiating food, as is the case for the federal government. Without measures taken during all aspect of food production to ensure cleanliness, the consumer is doomed to a lifetime of choices between dirty food, and dirtier food.