Food Irradiation Can Save Thousands of Lives Each Year

By Lenka Kollar

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 1 in 6 people get food poisoning each year in the United States and that 3000 die from foodborne illness. Food irradiation can drastically decrease these numbers by killing harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella in meat and produce. The U.S. government endorses the use of food irradiation, but does not educate the public about its benefits. Food irradiation has not caught on in the United States because consumers fear that radiation will mutate the food. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires a label (pictured below) for any food that has been irradiated.

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Food irradiation works by bombarding food with gamma rays, electron beams, or x-rays. Radioactive elements, such as cobalt-60 and cesium-137, emit high-energy photons or gamma rays that penetrate food. This type of radiation technology has been used routinely for more than 30 years to sterilize medical, dental, and household products, and it is also used for radiation treatment of cancer. Because the elements used do not emit neutrons, they do not make anything around them radioactive. Electron beams, or e-beams, are a stream of high-energy electrons propelled out of an electron gun and have been used as medical sterilizers for at least 15 years. X-ray irradiation can also be used for food irradiation and is a more powerful version of the machines used in many hospitals and dental offices to take X-ray pictures.

Irradiation does not change the nutritional value of the food, nor does it make it radioactive or dangerous to eat. This has been proven by numerous studies by the FDA and other national and international organizations. In fact, it is very difficult to distinguish if a food product has been irradiated or not. The high-energy particles kill bacteria, but do not alter the vitamin or nutritional content of the food. It still tastes and cooks the same and can even have a longer shelf life. Food irradiation can also be referred to as “cold pasteurization” because it kills bacteria through the use of radiation instead of heat as in traditional or hot pasteurization. Learn more about the process of irradiation and its effect on food on the CDC website and on Nuclear Connect.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames an “anti-science movement” for public resistance to food irradiation. Osterholm says that, “Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America.”

As mentioned before, the United States already uses irradiation to clean medical equipment and other consumer products. Spices are commonly irradiated and the practice is growing for imported fruits and vegetables. Americans are already eating much more irradiated food than they realize because irradiated ingredients in processed foods do not need to be labeled.

Irradiation advocates have fought to remove the label because it does not change the food, while other treatment processes such as chemical washes for chickens and fumigation for strawberries do not require labels. The word “irradiation” scares consumers because they are unfamiliar with the technology.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 25 percent of the world’s food supply is lost every year due to pests and bacteria while people die of hunger. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by diseases caused by contaminated food. Irradiation using radioisotopes has proved effective in controlling pathogenic bacteria and parasites in food products and can make our food safer and last longer.

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lenka kollar 127x150Lenka Kollar is the owner & editor of Nuclear Undone, a blog and consulting company focusing on educating the public about nuclear energy and nonproliferation issues. She is an active ANS member, serving on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Technical Group Executive Committee, Student Sections Committee, and Professional Women in ANS Committee. Connect with Lenka on LinkedIn and Twitter.

10 Responses to Food Irradiation Can Save Thousands of Lives Each Year

  1. Excellent report, Lenka. I would only add that having the “label” on irradiated foods causes anxiety in the radiophobic demographic, which is a small fraction of the total population but numerically significant in large populations such as America. Yes, misunderstanding has its exacerbating effect, but mortal fear of radiation is also a severe detriment. A massive education program seems needed, and the politically-motivated “squeaky wheels” who influenced the “labeling” requirement decades ago, would probably do everything in their power to keep such an education program under wraps. Meanwhile, enough food rots every day that could otherwise make a major positive impact on world hunger.

  2. Scott Greenwood

    I wrote a short paper for an ionizing radiation class exploring both sides of this issue. In short, your conclusions are absolutely valid. However you statements that irradiation does not change the nutritional value of the food (vitamin, etc.) nor its cooking, etc. qualities I do not believe to be valid as written. From my research those statements don’t seem to be as true as you lead on (though I hope that is not your intention as the IAEA makes that statement erroneously). I comment on this only to express my belief that the truth must be fully explained give credibility to an argument. Perhaps a better statement is to say when certain guidelines are strictly followed food irradiation leads to no adverse effects on food nor consequences to the end user.

    If I am erroneous in my conclusions I am open to correction though existing literature to which I have been exposed seems to agree with my stance.

    Below is a brief summary of these points from a paper I wrote.
    Statements from proponents of food irradiation often state that there are no effects on nutrition, chemical, health etc. This type of specific response was used in an official document produced in partner with the IAEA (1). The reason for this simple word when a more accurate response such as “sort of” is appropriate can be explained away by explaining that either in quantities that humans eat there is no effect or in doses over a certain range or in a certain food it is not reasonable to relate to the discussion. The public deserves to know upfront in an unbiased language what the facts are. Facts such as irradiation does have an effect on some food items at certain doses while it is apparent that there is no dose limit for others should be stated. Another one is that vitamins are destroyed in irradiation but in many cases those losses are comparable (sometimes better and sometimes worse) to other treatments such as pasteurization that has been used for over a century. Furthermore, health effects from irradiated food have been documented from reproducible experiments. One such report from the University of Wisconsin used the knowledge of how irradiated cat food can cause multiple sclerosis symptoms (e.g. blindness, paralysis) in pregnant female cats to study myelin sheath repair (2). It is irresponsible to completely disregard scientific findings that might fly in the face of the accepted practice. If these reports are not being disregarded, they should be readily cited and explained as to the reason they are not applicable or credible to avoid any semblance of deceit. Finally, a controversial term of “cold pasteurization” has been tied to food irradiation in order to overcome the general negative public perception of anything associated with radiation. Opinions and reasons are varied on the use of this name but it is better to avoid any perception of dishonesty. As the famous poet Khalil Gibran wrote:
    “In battling evil, excess is good; for he who is moderate in announcing the truth is presenting half-truth. He conceals the other half out of fear of the people’s wrath.”

    1. Facts about Food Irradiation, A series of Fact Sheets. International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation and the International Atomic Energy Agency. 1999.
    2. I.D. Duncan et. al., ‘Extensive remyelination of the CNS leads to functional recovery’, PNAS, Vol. 106, No. 16, April 2009.

  3. Brian Mays

    Furthermore, health effects from irradiated food have been documented from reproducible experiments. One such report from the University of Wisconsin used the knowledge of how irradiated cat food can cause multiple sclerosis symptoms (e.g. blindness, paralysis) in pregnant female cats to study myelin sheath repair (2).

    OK. Something is very fishy here. The researchers state that the cat food was irradiated with less than 50 Gy of dose. That’s a small amount. It just might inhibit a potato from sprouting (but cats don’t eat potatoes ;-) ), but killing parasites or reducing pathogens requires a dose that is at least an order of magnitude higher.

    The researchers examined the nutrients in the diet, they looked at the tissue of the affected cats for vitamin deficiencies and toxins, they ran blood work and urinalysis tests, and they found nothing. They tried to produce a similar reaction to “irradiated” food in pregnant rats and failed. What’s causing the disease, and why does it affect only cats?

    In their “final feeding trial,” irradiated diets were compared to “the same” diets that were sterilized by heating. It makes me wonder whether they did the obvious experiment of comparing the “irradiated” diet to a similar diet that was not heated. Or if that didn’t occur to them, they could have done the equally obvious experiment of taking two diets that were both sterilized the same way with heat, irradiating one of these identical diets after it was heated, and comparing the outcome of eating the two. I would expect this basic level of scientific rigor in a high-school science fair project, much less something published in PNAS, but I find it lacking here.

    It seems to me that there is more than one factor involved, and the relatively small amount of irradiation is the most negligible one.

  4. Breck Henderson

    This is a good example of the BS that goes on surrounding almost any controversial subject these days. The anti-nuclear fanatics just know in their hearts that irradiation is “wrong” so they gin up pseudo-scientific “studies” to prove their point. Often, the “studies” are just believable enough that a layman can accept the results. But it only takes a little drilling into how the work was performed to expose it as junk science. Nevertheless, it gets out there and is accepted by folks who don’t know, or don’t want to know, better. It’s not just nuclear issues that suffer from this, there is a whole range of topics from global warming to tracking.

  5. Brian Mays

    Breck – These days? Bad Science (that’s what you meant by “BS,” wasn’t it? ;-) ) has been going on in many fields for quite a long time. This is what Richard Feynman had to say about it in 1974, and he was referencing work done over 25 years earlier:

    Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this–it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

    I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person–to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know the the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

    She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happened.

    All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

    The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? … He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

    Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using–not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

    I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of cargo cult science.

    Recognizing Cargo Cult Science — and I believe this is what we’re dealing with here with the pregnant cats and the irradiated food — is, tragically, a very rare skill.

  6. Scott Greenwood

    Brian,
    Thank you for putting doubt on the claim regarding the UW study. I inadvertently did the same thing that I was trying to point out the article had done. Make too broad of strokes, too definitive statements without the necessary qualifying statements. My purpose in referencing that study among the many others that could also be referenced was to simply indicate that nothing is as clear cut as suggested. I have found that the more contemplative on a subject I become, the more the subject sheds it stark black and white coats for one of a neutral shade.

    The goal of my original post was to simply employ for complete disclosure, especially in controversial areas (don’t take this as an outright endorsement of transparency in all things but rather transparency as default with exceptions for otherwise). Clearly those who oppose an issue for a conclusion not reach by an unbiased examination of truths will always find fodder to fling, but those individuals are not the audience necessary to convince (as they can’t be until they adapt their mindset). Providing qualifying statements where uncertainty exists helps fend of attacks and gives confidence to the honest seeker of truth that what they are learning has taken into account all applicable views within reason. For can one fairly argue that they support a cause if they do not know what the rational is for those who oppose them?

    In summary, and to repeat a line from my first post:
    ‘If these reports are not being disregarded, they should be readily cited and explained as to the reason they are not applicable or credible to avoid any semblance of deceit’.

    A thoughtful response such as what you provided Bryan is what I would seek regulatory bodies, groups, etc to provide upfront. Recognize the gray as appropriate, and if no ambiguity should truly exist than prove your fidelity to truth by referencing the claim(s) then recognize and carefully discredit falsehoods/incorrect conclusions/not applicable.

    I will stop at this point as any discussion as this could (and has most assuredly) provide enough healthy discussion for fascinating articles, papers, and debates. Something which a comment board will never be able to tackle (as many of the ideas, consequences, problems, etc. our comments perhaps have sparked have not been mentioned nor fully developed in our own minds).

    I make no claim of infallibility in my presentation. If we are in disagreement of the focus of my post, transparency in conclusions, than that is another discussion I suppose.

    Aside 1: As far as cats eating potatoes… I’m not sure what most domestic cats really do eat anymore with the various wet and dry food options. Chances are they do consume some sort of potato product even if its used as a binding agent :) . We could research this too but I’m not really concerned about that at this juncture :) .

    Aside 2: The story/study of Richard Feynman you shared is interesting. I would contend though just as it is rash to make conclusions based on studies that have not examined all possibilities, likewise it would be disadvantageous to categorically believe that no insight that can be gleaned from those same studies taken in context with what other explorations reveal/support.

    Breck,
    Your comment doesn’t, in my estimation, further the discussion. It comes off as brash and an example of what I would hope can be improved on the discussion of controversial subjects especially (even if the science supports one side so strongly that there should not be a controversy!). To simply state that some study is ‘junk science’ does not demonstrate any insight on the subject, knowledge or experience you have attained, nor help those who are in favor of your argument. Rather it appears that you refuse to be opened minded to things you have not considered. For example, based on your response and the way I interpret it, even if there was an amazingly thorough study done on a subject whose conclusions with which you disagreed, you would spend little effort in analyzing the study and what made those conclusions seem evident. Instead, you would assume it was junk, that the researchers were ignorantly or blatantly lying, and then you would give no satisfying discussion of why this was the case. I hope that in reality this would not be the case but this is the impression given by your post.

    I state this not to enrage or otherwise induce strong emotions from you, but rather to indicate how I as a reader of your comment, with no additional knowledge regarding your person, interprets your remarks. Surely other readers may feel different but through practice we can improve our ability to share our opinions and express them in this evidently limited sharing medium.

    By the way, your remarks almost have the faint accusation that I am anti-nuclear, food irradiation, etc. Hardly, based on my experience and exposure to arguments and evidence, I heartily support nuclear power, the irradiation of food for improving accessibility, shelf life, human health, etc. Just thought you might like to know that your not reading the views of an opponent but a fellow supporter as I see it.

    Cheers! Till next time.

  7. Scott Greenwood

    Real Quick!
    You stated that the cat food was irradiated to only 50 Gy. That is incorrect which might affect your comment… let us know. The original paper incorrectly stated 25-50 Gy, a correction for the paper was released stating that it should read 25-50 kGy… A bit different. Just thought your would like to know.

  8. Brian Mays

    The original paper incorrectly stated 25-50 Gy, a correction for the paper was released stating that it should read 25-50 kGy

    What’s a few thousand gray between friends, eh? If your point was that the researchers were a bit sloppy when it comes to the irradiation aspects of their work, then I agree. ;-)

    Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling like Goldilocks … first the dose was too small, now it’s too large. This level of irradiation exposure is about ten times what is normally used for meat in the US. The only food items that get such high exposures are things like herbs and spices.

    Look, I’m not trying to imply that the research in the paper doesn’t have any merit or value. The results that were reported certainly have some interest to scientists who specialize in the type of disease that was studied, but what they don’t do is explain how the irradiation of the cat food affects the disease that they observe. That is what was not studied, so this paper is a very poor choice to reference if one is trying to make the point that irradiation of food leads to some sort of adverse health effects. Without any additional information, I can only conclude that some other factor might be involved.

    I’m all for being transparent, but drawing conclusions from vague results about things that nobody understands is something entirely different. That’s not transparency … that’s superstition.

  9. Scott Greenwood

    The correction is pretty clear (and it is not uncommon for small corrections that don’t affect a papers conclusions). If you simply copy and paste the reference the correction is the second link on google… right after the link to the paper plus it is included on the first page of the article. So the Goldilocks symptoms seem to be heedlessly self inflicted ;) .

    The dose in question is used for food sterilization for certain lab animals. So that dose IS of interest and is not just used for herbs/spices and some meats (you forgot to add that).

    I must partly disagree after further reflection of your poor characterization of the appropriateness of the reference. I think I would still keep this paper in my mind in further discussion of food irradiation but with an additional study on what possible alterations to food irradiation may cause such as ‘selective effects on the vitamin A and peroxide contents’ (1). It appears that the dose in question and its impacts are very well documented (other studies are available). In fact, there is even a case study of a company (Champion Pet Foods) not being properly informed (so the company says) on potential impacts of irradiation of their product and it has to do with some aussie cats (2 – QandA below) (This report references 1).

    Start Quote:
    Q: DID THE IRRADIATION FACILITY WARN CHAMPION PETFOODS ABOUT A POTENTIAL NEGATIVE EFFECT OF IRRADIATION?
    A: NO.
    Once we learned irradiation had been performed, Champion contacted the irradiation facility to discuss the levels and safety of
    irradiation, and to request records of the irradiation levels. At no point was it suggested Champion ‘test’ a food sample prior to
    releasing the irradiated pet food for sale in the Australian market.
    We trusted that government sanctioned and mandated treatments would not change our cat food and ultimately cause harm to
    Australian cats.
    End Quote.

    Transparency is important! Although the effected by this case are cats, it could be easily envisioned that some company in the future could argue ‘We’ll nobody told us!’ to some worse case.
    Irradiation can affect food, it is not superstition, and everyone should know it. There is no reason to hide it. But, if strict guidelines are followed, such as keeping irradiation below certain doses (e.g. 10 kGy), then it won’t affect foods in such a way that there will be negative health impacts. Everyone should know that too!

    So this brings me back to the same point which started this discussion. When discussing food irradiation it would be wise to qualify a statement such as that used in the original article, that ‘irradiation does not change the nutritional value of the food, etc’ with a simple addition such as:
    ‘irradiation does not change the nutritional value of the food, etc WHEN established guidelines are strictly followed’.

    We are only doing a disservice to our cause, as supporters of food irradiation, nuclear power, etc. when we use blanked statements without qualifying explanations which conceal, whatever the original intention, the whole truth and thereby cast shadows on our trustworthiness.

    1. Effects of Gamma Irradiation and Pasteurization on the Nutritive Composition of Commercially Available Animal Diets, Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, Nov 2008; 47(6): 61–66.
    2. Champion Pet Food December 20, 2008 Press Release

  10. Brian Mays

    Sigh … more superstition and more reaching. There is no clear evidence that those Australian cats were suffering from a vitamin A deficiency. Furthermore, all of the problems that the cats experienced were traced back one, and only one, batch of cat food from one supplier. No other batch of cat food that was irradiated with the same amount of exposure was found to cause problems. If you are as knowledgeable on this topic as you claim to be, then you should know this.

    Far from being transparent, I find you style of debate to be rather dishonest. The best that you’ve managed to put forward is pure speculation and a press release by some company that was trying to cover its ass and avoid a lawsuit.

    Drawing conclusions when no substantial, credible evidence exists is superstition … plain and simple.

    But this exchange has become extremely tedious and boring. I leave the last word to you.

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