The Basics on the Foodfight Over Irradiation
Should you look for the "radura" symbol?
By Adam Voiland
Posted September 5, 2008
Source of Article: http://health.usnews.com/articles/health/living-well-usn/2008/09/05/the-basics-on-the-foodfight-over-irradiation.html
The Food and Drug Administration's
approval late last month of pathogen-zapping irradiation technology for fresh
spinach and iceberg lettuce has reignited a long simmering debate about how to
improve the safety of food. The news comes as the latest food safety scare—the
salmonella outbreak probably caused by hot peppers—winds down after infecting
1,442 people across 43 states and killing two of them. The Centers for Disease
Control estimates that foodborne diseases cause
approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths
each year in the
Given the less than spotless state of the nation's food supply, is bombarding a product with radiation to kill microorganisms such as E. coli and salmonella a good thing? Or should you avoid irradiated food, as some groups urge? U.S. News asked food safety experts some key questions to help you decide.
What is irradiation?
The process involves treating a food with a short burst of high energy radiation that damages the DNA of bacteria. Though the FDA has only just approved the technique for use with fresh spinach and iceberg lettuce, the technology is not new. In fact, the agency has conducted safety tests on the technology for more than 40 years, and its use on meat has been approved since 1997. Spinach and iceberg lettuce are the first types of produce approved for irradiation at levels intense enough to kill pathogens. (Lower doses have been approved for other purposes, such as controlling insect infestations and slowing ripening produce's maturation.)
Why do some food processors want
to irradiate food?
Groups that represent food processors, such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the American Meat Institute, want to irradiate certain products to kill problematic pathogens and to extend shelf life. Research shows that irradiation destroys 99.9 percent of common foodborne pathogens. However, advocacy groups such as Food & Water Watch and the Organic Consumers Association oppose the irradiation of food on the grounds that it doesn't address the root causes of outbreaks, such as unsanitary conditions at farms and food processing plants, and reduces the nutritional quality, taste, and texture of food.
Why has the Food and Drug
Administration decided to approve the technology for use with spinach and
According to Christine Bruhn, a
Does this decision mean I'll start
seeing more irradiated products in the supermarket?
Possibly. However, consumers have been slow to accept irradiated foods in the past, and the same could be true in this case, experts say. Only a limited number of supermarkets—such as Wegmans, for example—so far carry irradiated meat. One company that has embraced irradiation is Omaha Steaks, a meat producer in
How can I tell if a product has
The FDA requires that irradiated foods bear a distinctive, circular "radura" symbol and the statement: "Treated with radiation." There's a move afoot by industry groups to push for a change in the wording on the label to something that sounds more appealing, such as "cold" or "electronic" pasteurization, says Bill Freese of the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based advocacy group that opposes irradiation.
Is irradiated food safe?
A number of medical groups, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, and the American Dietetic Association consider irradiated food safe. Though the irradiation process does not leave any residue or radioactivity on food, a few isolated studies in animals have hinted at possible reproductive effects associated with irradiated foods. However, the FDA's assessment is that these studies are not valid and that the overwhelming majority show no evidence of toxicity. Critics consider irradiation a surface fix, arguing that the technology discourages farms and manufacturers from developing better farming techniques that would prevent contamination in the first place. They also argue that allowing irradiation may cause food processors to loosen standards of cleanliness in plants, increasing the risk of contamination.
If a product has been irradiated,
do I still need to wash it?
Yes, the FDA recommends washing bagged produce, unless the product has been pre-washed.
Does it taste any different?
Critics of irradiation argue the process takes a toll on the taste of fresh produce. Some blinded studies, however, have found that people can't tell the difference between the two, according to Bruhn.
Does the irradiation process
result in a loss of vitamins and nutrients?
Yes, to a small extent. Studies have shown, for example, that vitamins A, C, and E are sensitive to radiation levels. However, the FDA says that the amount of vitamin loss from irradiation is insignificant in the context of a person's overall intake of vitamins. Other food preparation techniques, such as the boiling certain types of produce, can also reduce the number of vitamins available.
Does irradiated food cost more?
Yes, experts estimate that irradiated food will cost consumers a few extra cents at the supermarket.
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