Food Irradiation

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2/21/01
Food Irradiation: Solution to Hunger or Killer Mutagen?
People all over the world are starving for fresh, uncontaminated food. Insects, pests, and invisible microorganisms are not what the public want to find on their dinner plates. Throughout history, life has depended on ways of treating food to reduce or destroy these naturally occurring harmful contaminants and to enable foods to be stored after harvesting so that they can be saved for use at other times of the year. With increasing populations and the growth of cities, it is even more important to be able to preserve food so that it can be transported over considerable distances and stored for long periods before it reaches the consumer. 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...
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