Myths about Food Irradiation

Irradiation offers health and convenience benefits for the public; however misconceptions about the process and its impact on people and the environment are sometimes presented. 

Myth: Irradiation would not be necessary if food production and processing facilities were cleaner.

This view fails to recognize that microorganisms are a natural part of the ecosystem. Microbiological safety must be achieved; it does not occur automatically, even in a visually clean environment. Since bacteria are ubiquitous, measures must be taken to control them. These include chemical dips or sprays, treatment with energy, i.e. food irradiation, or treatment with heat. Irradiation doesn't substitute for good manufacturing practices, it augments them.

Proper cooking destroys Salmonella, E. coli, and other pathogens; however the potential for cross-contamination is increased when contaminated food enters the kitchen. Chemical or energy treatment destroys the microbes before they are brought home.

Treatment of spices is sometimes overlooked. Some believe the choice is natural, wholesome spices or irradiated spices. Actually, most spices are fumigated to control microorganisms and/or insects. Irradiation produces a high quality product with greater worker and environmental safety. Irradiation is a positive move along the continuum of safety. Ten, twenty, or fifty years from now another process could replace irradiation; but today, it offers the greatest safety and quality.

Myth: Control of the irradiation process is not adequate.

International standards established by an international panel of experts are adopted by many if not all countries. See : How Food Irradiation is Regulated

Myth: Irradiation is not safe, and the scientific community opposes its use.

Respected national and international organizations, such as the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization, endorse the safety of irradiated foods. Scientists acknowledge that no process can be proven safe; rather, scientists develop scenarios to test safety. Irradiated food has been fed to multiple generations of laboratory animals and to human volunteers with no ill effects. When used to destroy microorganisms, irradiation improved food safety.

Myth: The public will not know what foods are irradiated and what are not.

Labeling of irradiated foods is required, except in restaurant foods and when irradiated spices and dried vegetables are used as flavorings in mixed dishes.

Myth: Transportation of radioactive cobalt is hazardous and people will be harmed by accidents. Community safety is not protected.

Transportation of radioactive material has occurred for more than 50 years without mishap. Containers and irradiation facilities must meet specific U.S. and international standards (WHO, 1991).

Myth: Irradiation facilities will add significant amounts of radioactive waste to the environment.

Cobalt used in food irradiation facilities could be "recycled" from that used to sterilize medical equipment. MDS Nordion, the company that produces cobalt60 in the western hemisphere, estimates that all the cobalt60 produced in North America could be stored in a space the size of an office desk. Irradiation by E-Beam and X-rays do not utilize radioactive material.

Myth: Irradiation destroys the nutritional content of food.

There is some loss of vitamins during irradiation, but this loss is comparable to that of other processing technologies. Opponents claim high losses because they refer to studies that expose food to high doses not permitted in the United States or they refer to older studies that failed to accurately measure nutritional value.

Myth: Activist groups who oppose food irradiation reflect public views and protect the public Interest.

Activist groups have their own agendas, and they differ in their reliance on science-based information. All groups, however rely on membership for fundraising. Some have demonstrated a tendency to identify and exaggerate "risks" and solicit funds in order to "protect the public interest", thus maintaining the financial solvency of the organization.

Myth: Consumers do not want and will not accept irradiated foods.

Marketing studies clearly demonstrate that many consumers prefer irradiated food and will select it over non-irradiated when given the opportunity. Consumers should be given the choice to select safety-enhanced irradiated foods.

Myth: Irradiation will make foods radioactive.

Irradiation does not change the radioactivity of food, nor does irradiation leaves any residues.

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