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Is Irradiated Food Safe?

Irradiation can kill harmful bacteria and keep food from spoiling. But opponents worry about the safety of irradiated food. A closer look at the pros and cons of food irradiation.

By
Monica Reinagel, M.S., L.N,
Episode #122

What are the Potential Problems with Food Irradiation?

Though irradiation may help to reduce potential harm from an imperfect system, it does not relieve food producers of any other food safety requirements.

Those opposed to food irradiation have several concerns, some of which are more legitimate than others.

  1. Irradiation cannot be used to hide rotten food.   Although irradiation can forestall spoilage, it cannot be used to trick you into eating spoiled food. Once food has started to spoil, there’s nothing about the irradiation process that can cover that up.

  2. Irradiation does not make a food radioactive. Although facilities that perform irradiation have to follow strict safety procedures to ensure that workers are protected from harmful exposure and that waste is properly disposed of, there is no chance that irradiated food will be radioactive.

  3. Irradiation may allow food producers to be sloppier. Opponents argue that irradiation to remove bacteria takes the pressure off of food producers to maintain adequate sanitation and quality standards—and is a band-aid for a “broken” food systemIrradiation does not relieve food producers of any other food safety requirements and may help to reduce potential harm from an imperfect system. 

Is Irradiated Food Safe?

Some worry that there just hasn’t been enough research to establish the safety of food irradiation. If you research the controversy on the Internet, you’ll come across stories about cats that developed grave medical problems after eating irradiated cat food. However, this seems to be an isolated incident and there are a lot of questions about whether the radiation really had anything to do with it.

The U.S. FDA and USDA have endorsed irradiation, citing over 50 years’ worth of research attesting to its safety. Now, there are a lot of people who don’t find this terribly reassuring because they feel that our governmental regulators are unduly influenced by and sympathetic to industry and business interests.

I don’t want to paint our regulators with too broad a brush, but I have to agree that there is a rather unsavory revolving door between the regulators and the business they regulate. And I have observed that in situations where the evidence is incomplete or inconsistent—such as the safety of BPA in food packaging or the use of hormones or antibiotics in livestock—where you might think that a public health agency would err on the side of caution, the FDA and USDA often seem to err on the side of commercial interests.

However, for what it’s worth, the World Health Organization and the European Union (both of which tend to be more cautious about these things than the U.S. regulatory agencies) have both embraced food irradiation as safe and beneficial, even necessary.

Below, you’ll find links to sources that are both in support of and opposed to irradiation. Having taken a look at the arguments for both sides, my own personal take is that the benefits outweigh the potential dangers. But obviously, you may come to a different conclusion.

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