Food Irradiation

On July 1, 2005, the population of the United States stood at 296,660,955. It is anticipated that for 2005, the number of foodborne illnesses will be 76 million; similar to 2004, along with several hundred thousand hospitalizations and 5000 deaths. That's approximately 30% of our total population. One in every 3 or 4 of us can expect to become a statistic—a case of gastroenteritis, or worse. It's an unimaginagle number. And there is an economic toll in medical treatment costs and lost productivity, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegs at $37 billion. Is this yearly magnitude of illness and economic loss acceptable? Foodborne illness is one of the most preventable conditions in the country. Assuredly, there is no magic bullet or wonder drug to eliminate food-borne disease, but there surely is a better way than current food safety practices. Food irradiation is a food protection-preservation process whose time has not only come, but is long past due. Its benefits clearly out weigh any risks. Irradiation of food can effectively protect the health of the public.

Just what is food irradiation? What does it accomplish, and is it safe? Before dealing with these questions, a pause for clarification. At this moment in history "radiation" is a much encumbered word, saddled, loaded with distracting and misleading undercurrents and associations. To say that it is maligned is not an overstatement. Ergo, cleansing is required.

The sun delivers a tremendous amount of energy daily, most of which travels to the earth as radiation. Radiation simply means radiant energy. It has nothing—repeat, nothing—to do with radioactivity. It refers only to the transmission and absorption of radiant energy that moves through space as invisible electromagnetic waves with differing energy levels. Consequently different types of radiant energy, visible light, microwaves, radio and TV waves, infrared, ultraviolet, X rays, and gamma rays can be distinguished from one another by their wavelengths. At the ends of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, we have cosmic, gamma, and X rays with the greatest penetrating power; and FM, radio, TV, and microwaves, with the lowest energy levels and least penetrating power at the other end. Visible light, the only energetic wave we can see, exists as a narrow band between the ultraviolet and infrared. It is the waves of radiant energy that bring radio and TV broadcasts into our homes. At this end of the energy spectrum we use low energy levels to toast our bread and cook our food.

The radiant energy used in food preservation is called ionizing radiation or irradiation. These are among the shorter wavelengths, at the more penetrating end of the spectrum, and are capable of damaging the type of microorganisms that bring us foodborne disease, and spoil food. As with the heat of pasteurization of milk, the irradiation process substantially reduces, but does not eliminate, all spoilage organisms. It does remove pathogens.

Irradiation exposes food to short- bursts of high electromagnetic energy. When microbes, present as they are in food, are irradiated, the energy from the wave is transferred to the water and other molecules in the bacteria, molds, and insects. The energy creates temporary, short-lived, reactive chemicals that damage the pests DNA, causing defects in their genetic instructions. Unless the damage can be repaired, the pests will die when attempting to duplicate themselves. Disease-causing organisms differ in their sensitivity to irradiation. The larger the organism, the larger the available DNA ,the easier it is to kill. The smaller the organism, such as a virus, the more difficult to remove, and the greater the need for penetrating energy. Also, because the doses are so small, there is never—repeat, never—any chance of the food becoming radio-iactive. Furthermore, the radiant energy sent into the food during irradiation dissipates as it passes through the food. None remains in the food So, how are foods irradiated? Two things are needed for irradiation: a source of radiant energy and a place to confine the energy. Three sources, three irradiation processes are currently avaialable. Each uses a different tyupe of energy.

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