Issue Paper

Food Irradiation

Americans love a good science fiction movie where an outbreak of a dangerous virus threatens all humanity. In the movie, the desperate government resort to the last option of nuclear warfare as a cure all remedy. However recent outbreaks of E. coli found in spinach, broccoli and sprouts have prompted FDA in approving the nuking of our food.

The method of treating food with radiation has been very controversial in the United States.  Food processors advocate that Irradiating the food is safe and kills bacteria pathogens that are harmful to people. While opposition groups argue irradiating is dangerous and long term effects are still unknown.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases. The five food borne pathogen causing the most illness, death and hospitalization are Norovirus , Salmonella , Clostridium perfringens , Campylobacter , and Staphylococcus aureus.(

According to CDC the use of irradiating meat, poultry, seafood and produce is promising in killing off bacteria pathogen. The used of radiation in preventing food borne illness is good for consumer health and reducing food borne related illness in America.  CDC estimate that 20% drop in infection has resulted in the last 10 years.

Irradiating food has been around since the 1960s and was used on food consume by NASA astronauts. The process of irradiating food involves the use of X-rays, electron beams or gamma ray which come from Cobalt 60 or cesium 137. The food is hit by a low dose of radiation from these sources; the radiation penetrates deep into the food and damages the genetic material of pathogens. The radiation also breaks up water molecules and releases free radicals that can kill pathogens.

“The process of irradiation is the same like pasteurization in milk” says the CDC,” The taste will be different once the food is irradiated, just like milk is after pasteurization . The food is essentially the same after irradiation, no nutritional loss or dangers of radiation exist in the food afterwards.” (

The irradiation of food seems very promising in fighting dangerous pathogens but critics like the Food and Water group argue irradiation does more harm than good. In the article “Nuclear Lunch: The Dangers and Unknown of good Irradiation” published in their journal argues that Irradiation process has many risk and danger that are not fully understood yet.

The group states that Irradiating food causes free radical , and that these radicals  react with food  and create new chemicals called radiolytic products. The radiolytic products such as formaldehyde ,benzene,formic acid and quinones are harmful to humans. Some of these products are carcinogenic while others are Unique  radiolytic  products that have not been identified. (Food & Water)

Further the group states that Irradiating process destroyed  vitamins, enzymes, and minerals in the food. The lost of between 20 % to 80% is not uncommon. The Irradiation process kills raw shellfish changing their taste. In eggs the white is turn into liquidly water, while cucumber and grapes cell wall collapse and become mushy texture.(Food & Water)

The article points to several studies showing the side effect of irradiate food . One study conducted by Raltech scientific services shows animal species that consume irradiated chicken resulted in chromosome damage, immunotoxicity, greater incidence of kidney disease, cardiac thrombus and fibroplasia. Another studies focus on rats being fed irradiated food resulted in kidney and testicular damage and statistically significant increase in testicular tumors.  (food &water)

According to the article, Irradiation is being championed by food processor as a quick fix to the their sanitation and food safety problem. The farm factory that is slaughtering more than 300 cows per hour and 200 chickens per minute are creating the condition for pathogen and contamination to thrive. These high production numbers result in overcrowding and hazardous condition. The contaminated can even start before the animals enter the mass slaughter line. Overcrowding of the animal can leads to feces contaminated food, water and area. The article insists a better sanitation and good manufacturing practice rather than irradiation.

So what do consumers think of Irradiating their food?  According to the article “Will Irradiation Be Back on the Table?” by Elena Conis , public opinion is slowly switching on issues. Elena points to a recent survey showing that 60% of consumers said they were very or somewhat favorable towards the idea of Irradiation.  (Conis)

Elena explains that Irradiation has been around since the 1960 when it was used on wheat flour, then in the 1980s on pork and produce. The top used of irradiation has been spices, with over 175 million pounds of spices being irradiated. The used of Irradiation is the most common among medical manufactures as a way to sterilize medical equipment used in surgery. In hospital sick patients with weak immune system are given irradiated food to eat.

Elena concludes in the article that after decades of study by World health organization, the food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and the Atomic Energy Agency study; the data showed irradiated food to be safe and equal to canned or pasteurized item . (Conis)

The topic of Irradiating food is very controversial even with the endorsement of being safe by the CDC, WHO and FDA. Fear of radiation being used in treating our food, makes most consumer cringes at the very thought.  The use of radiation is almost like the use of ammonia in treating pink slime filler in beef that is unappetizing. In conclusion the future of combating food borne pathogens might be the path of irradiating all food, but before we put on our lead vest we should consider other alternatives such as proper food handling, cleaner production policy and proper cooking.


Conis, Elena. “ Will Irradiation Be Back on the Table?” Los Angeles Times 19 June 2011: A 22. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web 01 Apr 2012

“Nuclear Lunch: The Dangers and Unknowns of Food Irradiation.” Food & Water Journal  Fall/Win. 1997-1998 17-21 SIRS Issues Researcher  Web 01 Apr 2012

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