10 Far-Reaching Pros and Cons of Food Irradiation

Food is important and increasingly getting expensive. So any citizen feels a pang of guilt for having purchased items they weren’t able to consume, be it because they forgot about it or wasn’t able to find the time to do something with it.

Not only is food expensive, but some carry the risk of causing harm to those who eat it. Food poisoning is an issue not to be taken lightly as its effects vary from person to person.

To control food spoilage and eliminate food-borne pathogens like salmonella, a technology called food irradiation was developed. It’s a process that improves the safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects. The technique is akin to pasteurizing milk and canning fruits and vegetables in that they both make food safer for consumers.

Although scientific research dating back five decades ago has shown that food irradiation is a safe and effective form of processing, the method is still being met with much skepticism. Countries such as Australia, the United States, Japan, China, France and Holland all approve food irradiation.

Then again, certain limits are imposed on what kinds of food can be irradiated. Fro instance, only herbs and spices, as well as herbal infusions and some tropical fruits can undergo the procedure in Australia and New Zealand.

How Is Food Irradiated?

Three sources have been approved for irradiation of food, and these are:

Gamma rays
Gamma radiation has long been used to sterilize medical, dental and household products. In addition, it has been used for the radiation treatment of cancer. These are emitted from radioactive forms of cobalt or cesium.

These are produced by reflecting a high-energy stream of electrons of a target substance and into food. The fields of medicine and industry make use of X-rays to produce images of internal structures.

Electron beam
Also called e-beam, it functions similarly to X-rays in that high-energy electrons are propelled from an electron accelerator into food.

Support and Opposition

The Food and Drug Administration have approved irradiation for a number of foods in the US, including:

  • beef and pork
  • crustaceans
  • fresh fruit and vegetables
  • lettuce and spinach
  • molluscan shellfish
  • poultry
  • seeds for sprouting
  • shell eggs
  • spices and seasonings

Consumers will know if food has been irradiated as authorities mandate there be labels on them. The FDA requires that foods bear the international symbol for irradiation – a Radura symbol with the statement “Treated with radiation” or “Treated by irradiation.”

Despite support from the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association and the Scientific Committee of the European Union – all three internationally recognized bodies – food irradiation still has its fair share of detractors.

To understand both the opposing and supporting parties, it’s time to look at a list of pros and cons for each:

List of Pros of Food Irradiation

1. It prevents food-borne illness
Through irradiation, organisms that cause food-borne illnesses such as Salmonella and Escherichia coli are effectively eliminated.

2. It helps preserve food
Irradiation destroys and inactivates organisms that cause food to spol and decompose. As a result, the shelf life of foods are extended.

3. It controls insects
Often times, tropical fruits imported into the US bring with them unwanted insects. Since insects are known to disrupt as well as bring disease, eliminating them for the sake of consumers is always good. Also, irradiation limits the need for pest-control practices that cause further damage to fruit.

4. It delays sprouting and ripening
A delay in sprouting – for example, in potatoes – increases its longevity. The same foes also result to delaying the ripening of fruit.

5. It provides sterilization
Irradiation can be used to sterilize food which means it can be stored for a long time without the need for refrigeration. Sterilized foods are useful in places like hospitals, particularly for patients who have impaired immune systems such as those with AIDS or those who are undergoing chemotherapy.

In addition, foods that are sterilized by irradiation are exposed to higher levels of treatment than those approved for general use.

List of Cons of Food Irradiation

1. It is radioactive
One of the main concerns of consumes regarding irradiated food is that it is radioactive. As such, the food is harmful to eat. However, this has been debunked as irradiated foods have been proven not to be radioactive. Extensive testing has also been done and it shows that irradiating food is just as safe as canning, pasteurizing and freezing.

2. It gives consumers less choice
Consumers who are still skeptical of such practices want to be able to choose between food that has been irradiated and those that have not. Authorities have made sure this happens through mandatory labeling.

3. It raises concerns about food hygiene
Given that irradiation eliminates food-borne pathogens and extends shelf life, there are concerns that food hygiene practices aren’t put into place. People believe that hygiene practices as well as food handling techniques would be less stringent.

While it’s true that irradiating food removes some harmful elements, it’s never a substitute for food hygiene. Consumers still need to exercise proper handling and sanitation when it comes to food, whether or not it was irradiated. In other words, it’s not a reason for society to be reckless given that certain elements that cause harm and detriment have been removed from food before they are distributed for public consumption.

4. It eliminated warning signs of food spoilage
There is concern that irradiation will make it hard to tell whether or not food has gone bad because that certain element has been stripped before it landed in someone’s grocery basket. Normal indicators such as smell or mold are destroyed thanks to irradiation.

While it does lengthen shelf life, it doesn’t totally free it from spoilage is the point detractors want to bring across. Basically, how can they tell it is truly spoiled when the factors that lead to spoilage have been removed?

5. It doesn’t benefit consumers
Many consumers believe that irradiating food is just based on market needs, and not really the needs of the consumer.

About the Author of this Blog Post
Natalie Regoli, Esq. is the author of this post and the editor-in-chief of our blog. She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Washington and her Masters in Law from The University of Texas School of Law. In addition to being a seasoned writer, Natalie has almost two decades of experience as a lawyer and banker. She is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. If you would like to reach out to contact Natalie, then go here to send her a message.