Food irradiation is a process some manufacturers use to kill bacteria in food and help it keep longer on store shelves. It is a controversial process which some do not approve of. The United States Department of Agriculture does not allow irradiated food to receive the certified organic label.
How Food Is Irradiated
To become irradiated, food is subjected to one of three different types of ray:
- Gamma rays
- Electron beams
The energy from these rays breaks apart microbes, causing them either to die or to no longer be able to reproduce, eliminating spoilage.
Benefits of Irradiation
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the benefits of this process are as follows:
- It eliminates or at least greatly reduces the amount of disease-causing agents in foods.
- It has no effect on the food's nutritional value.
- It doesn't transfer the radiation to food, therefore not making it radioactive.
Drawbacks of Food Irradiation
The EPA admits that there are some drawbacks as well, mainly that people shopping for irradiated food will have a hard time telling if the food has gone bad. The bacteria that causes fruits and vegetables to smell and look old is not present, so food that is past its prime can still look fresh even when it isn't.
Proponents of organic foods have a longer list of complaints. According to the Organic Consumers Association:
- Irradiation can cause free radicals when the molecules of microbes break up. They can bond with other chemicals in the food, such as those from pesticides
- Irradiation can affect the vitamin content of foods, lowering them by as much as 80%.
- These foods may contain "trace amounts of radioactivity."
- Food irradiation can damage enzymes in food, making it harder for the body to digest.
Foods That Can Be Irradiated
As of April 2009, the FDA has granted permission for the following substances to undergo food irradiation:
- Processed pork
- Frozen meats
- Uncooked, refrigerated meat
- Dry spices and seasonings
- Fresh eggs
- Sprouting seeds
- Fresh or frozen fish
- Fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce
Regulations also permit the irradiation of "fresh foods" and just plain "foods" for "arthropod disinfection" and "growth and maturation inhibition." This can make it difficult to tell what exact foods irradiation is allowed to touch.
Foods that are irradiated are required by the FDA to have the radura symbol on their packaging and either the phrase "treated by irradiation" or "treated with irradiation." However, due to a decision by Congress, these words do not have to be any larger than the type on the package's ingredients list.
Foods that contain irradiated ingredients yet are not themselves irradiated do not have to be labeled as such. For example, if a pasta salad contains irradiated cabbage, there is no requirement for labeling. Also, foods that consumers buy as part of meals at restaurants require no such notification on their menus.
Additionally, the FDA has in the past tried to work to get labeling requirements relaxed. Some see this as a way for the agency to deceive consumers.
Although it is debatable whether food irradiation is unhealthy or not, those deciding they would rather not consume it are best to choose organic. Since it is touch and go whether foods that are irradiated will be labeled as such, it can be somewhat comforting to rely on the "certified organic" label, which can essentially do the same in reverse, by labeling foods as "not irradiated." Organic certification entails inspection of the finished products as well as the individual ingredients, so there is no loophole in this process by which food irradiation can slip by undetected.