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Food Irradiation

Irradiation Methods, Food Irradiation Sparks Debate

Food irradiation refers to a process where food is exposed to a type of radiation called ionizing radiation. The high-energy of the radiation, which can come from a radioactive or a non-radioactive source, breaks apart the genetic material of microorganisms that are on the surface of the food. Microorganisms and other surface contaminants, including insects, are killed as a result.

This scrutiny of food irradiation, combined with the public controversy surrounding the exposure of foods to radioactivity, has meant that the effects of irradiation on foods have been extensively studied. The consensus from these studies is that radioactive sterilization of food does not cause the food itself to become radioactive, nor does the irradiation appreciably alter the nutritional characteristics of the food.

The practice of irradiating foods is not new. Patents were issued in the United States and Britain for food irradiation in the first decade of the twentieth century. Scientists demonstrated in 1947 that meat and other foods could be sterilized by ionizing radiation. The military took a great interest in this development, seeing it as a way of supplying field troops with food. Military experiments on the irradiation of fruits, vegetables, milk and milk products, and various meats began in the U.S. in the 1950s.

In 1958, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration became the official government agency concerned with the evaluation and approval of irradiated foods. Congress gave the FDA authority over the food irradiation process.

The manned space program undertaken by the U.S. beginning in the 1960s gave a great boost to food irradiation technology. Astronauts have always eaten irradiated foods. In addition, in the 1960s, the United Nations established a Joint Expert Committee on Food Irradiation. The committee concluded in 1980 that the irradiation of foods posed no unique nutritional or microbiological problems.

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