FOOD IRRADIATION: FACTS YOU SHOULD KNOW

Food is often expensive and time consuming to grow. It is, however, often more expensive to transport, package and store it. So to avoid the inevitable wastage (and financial cost) of food ‘spoiling’, food manufacturers and distributors use a wide variety of techniques to preserve and to extend the ‘shelf life’ of the food they sell.

Drying, smoking and salting are the among the oldest and best established techniques but these methods do not always work and are not always entirely safe. Not long ago a report from the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization concluded that ‘illness due to contaminated food is perhaps the most widespread health problem in the contemporary world’.

There is no doubt that the incidence of food borne disease has gone up dramatically during the last few years. Much to the consternation of the food manufacturers—and their scientists— many of the chemicals previously used to preserve food are now under suspicion of damaging human health.

Because of the problems associated with chemicals used to preserve food a new technique—irradiation—is now being used to preserve food.

The technique used is very simple.

The food to be preserved is radiated—exposed to the same sort of radiation that is more normally used to take X-rays of broken bones and to treat some types of cancer. One of the substances used to irradiate food is extracted from waste products obtained

From nuclear plants. The X-rays kill fungi, bacteria and insects that might otherwise make food spoil. This technique is proving to be very popular with food companies. They do not, of course, like it when food goes rotten and has to be thrown away. ‘Spoilt’ food costs the industry huge sums of money every year.

But the 64,000 dollar question is: Is radiation safe?

Those who advocate radiation claim that it is safer than using chemical preservatives.

But the truth is that we won’t know whether irradiated food is safe to eat until a large number of human beings have eaten it for a long time.

Here are just some of the possible problems which could be associated with irradiated food.

Irradiation can reduce the number of vitamins in food. How much will this affect the people who eat irradiated food? I don’t think anyone knows yet. We will probably have to wait another twenty years to find out.

Irradiation does not kill all the bugs in food. After treatment any bugs which have survived in the food may simply start to multiply again. For example, irradiating food doesn’t necessarily protect the consumer against botulism, a frequently fatal and particularly nasty form of food borne disease.

Exposing food to ionising radiation can result in the production of special chemical compounds called radiolytic products. These compounds will, of course, be eaten. But will they be safe to eat? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question yet.We will probably have to wait another twenty years to find out.

Irradiated food may taste and smell differently to ordinary food. Apart from the obvious disadvantage associated with this there is another hazard: will consumers be able to recognise when food is bad if it smells and tastes different anyway? At present the smell and taste of food is often a useful guide to its edibility. I don’t think anyone knows the answer to

Those questions yet.

The individuals who work in the food irradiating plants may be exposed to danger—in just the same way that the first radiologists were exposed to danger because the hazards associated with the technique being used were not fully understand. How dangerous will food irradiation be to people working in the food industry? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question yet. We will probably have to wait another twenty years to find out.

Many of the foods that seem most suitable for irradiation— and this includes such staples as fruit and vegetables—are the foods which are normally the healthiest and which provide many people with vital nutrients. These foods are particularly suitable for irradiation because they go off quite quickly if they are not ‘preserved’. But how many essential nutrients will be damaged by irradiation? And will consumers be turned away from these excellent foods if they know that they have been irradiated? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to that question yet. We will probably have to wait another twenty yean to find out.

Even if one country brings in laws to control irradiation— and to ensure that consumers are told when the food they are buying has been irradiated—it will probably be difficult to stop importers moving foods around the world after they have been given large doses of radiation. How will the consumer know how much radiation a food has been given? How much is too much? I don’t think anyone knows the answer to those questions yet. We will probably have to wait another twenty years to find out.

Irradiated foods may look fresh even though they are not. The result may be that you will buy food that is past its best. You will, therefore, suffer twice: you will be eating ‘bad’ food and you will be eating food that has been irradiated.

I am convinced that food irradiation is neither necessary nor

Welcome. There are, in my view, far too many opportunities for abuse and far too many potential pitfalls. My advice is to avoid any food that has been irradiated. Try to do most of your shopping at shops which you know do not sell irradiated food. And try to eat out in restaurants which do not serve irradiated food.

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