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Food Irradiation

Food Irradiation Sparks Debate

Like biotechnology, food irradiation has sparked fierce public debate. Some scientists are ardent supporters Levels of radiation (in rads) for various applications. Ranges shown for food irradiation are approved by the U.S. government. Illustration by Hans & Cassidy. Courtesy of Gale Group.
while other public groups are detractors of food irradiation. Supporters of food irradiation contend that its widespread use has the potential to reduce death and illness internationally due to food-borne microorganisms such as salmonella in poultry and trichinosis in pork.

Salmonella causes four million people to become ill and results in 1,000 deaths annually in the United States alone. Contamination of food products with a bacterium called Escherichia coli 0157 causes over 20,000 illnesses and 500 deaths a year. Internationally, as much as 30% of the world's food supply cannot be used each year because it is either spoiled or consumed by insects. Globally, there are an estimated 24,000–120,000 cases of Salmonella food poisoning and 4,900–9,800 cases of E. coli 0157:H7 food poisoning each year. Treatment of such food-borne illnesses and lost productivity costs an estimated US$5–6 billion each year.

Despite the weight of evidence and the need for a more effective food treatment strategy, advocates of food irradiation face public opposition. Some consumers and groups are concerned about the unforeseen reactions in food caused by the presence of high-energy particles. Others do not want the food they eat to have been exposed to radioactive substances. Ultimately, the benefits of food irradiation will be weighed against the public's wariness concerning radiation and the food supply.

As public awareness and understanding of irradiation continues, the acceptance of irradiation as a food protection strategy could prevail. The weight of evidence supports the technique. As of 2000, food irradiation is endorsed by the United States Food Protection Agency, the American Medical Association, and the World Health Association, and over 40 countries sterilize food by irradiation.



Satin, Morton. Food Irradiation: A Guidebook. Lancaster, PA: Technomic Publishing Company, 1993.


Osterholm, M.T., and M.E. Potter. "Irradiation Pasteurization of Solid Foods: Taking Food Safety to the Next Level." Emerging Infectious Disease 3 (1997): 575–577.

Radomyski, T., E.A. Murano, D.G. Olson, et al. "Elimination of Pathogens of Significance in Food by Low-dose Irradiation: A Review." Journal of Food Protection 57 (1994): 73–86.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1600 Clifton Road, Atlanta, GA 30333. (404) 639–3311. <http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.htm.>.

Brian Hoyle


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—Any substance capable of causing cancer by mutating the cell's DNA.

Free radicals

—Unstable molecules containing an odd number of electrons and, therefore, seeking an electron from another molecule.

Gamma ray

—A highly penetrating type of radiant energy that has the power to ionize.


—An atom or molecule which has acquired electrical charge by either losing electrons (positively charged ion) or gaining electrons (negatively charged ion). The process of changing a substance into ions is known as ionization.


—A type of atom or isotope, such as strontium-90, that exhibits radioactivity.


—Products or substances formed during the radiation process.

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