By Jody McCutcheon
Ever opened the fridge to find a forgotten apple or vegetable you put there months ago, only to be looking as pristine as it did the day it entered your kitchen? Ever noticed that organic fruit and veg seems to go off faster than other conventional foods? There’s a reason for that – and it’s kind of scary – your food has been dosed with radiation. That doesn’t sound good and it’s not. Here are some of the reasons for and dangers of food irradiation.
What And Why?
Approved in the late 1980’s by the World Health Organization and the US Food and Drug Administration, irradiation is the process of passing food through an energy field so it absorbs a controlled radiation dose that ultimately changes the food’s chemistry. The three main sources are gamma rays, electron beams and x-rays.
While government regulation of irradiated food varies widely between countries, international experts generally agree that food exposed to less than 10 kilograys (kGy) [of energy] is safe for consumption – but does that mean it’s healthy? The answer is no, as we shall see.
North America leads the charge in food irradiation. The US irradiates minimally processed foods including beef, pork, poultry, seafood, eggs, fruits and vegetables, sprouting seeds, spices and seasonings. In Canada, it’s wheat, potatoes, onions, spices and seasonings, while Health Canada is considering adding beef to the list. Although irradiation is considered a food additive in the US and Canada, it acts more like a kind of food processing, offering many of the benefits of other food treatments, including heating and refrigerating.
The reasoning behind the practice is fourfold: preservation, making it more profitable for supermarkets as it lasts longer on their shelves; sterilization, delay of natural sprouting and ripening (which is why it seems certain fruits and veg, like avocadoes, tomatoes and mangoes, never seem to ripen) and control of any potential foodborne illness. And yet, the process doesn’t eradicate preformed toxins like those produced by C. botulinum, so consumers still must cook, refrigerate and properly handle their food to ensure they don’t get sick.
Of course, many governing bodies, including the WHO, FDA and International Atomic Energy Agency, maintain that food irradiation isn’t only safe, but also beneficial. As noted in a 1995 book by JF Diehl, hundreds of studies on lab animals have demonstrated no significant toxicity or development of chromosomal abnormality. Industry people maintain that irradiation affects food similarly to other treatments such as canning, smoking and heat pasteurization. Any nutrient loss, they say, is also comparable to that from other processing. But that’s a very important point: after all, do we really want to think of fresh fruit and vegetables as ‘processed foods’?
Since 1986, the FDA has required the international symbol of irradiated food—called a radura—to be displayed on packaged foods and bulk containers of unpackaged foods in the US, along with a short statement declaring the food irradiated. Labels may also include reasons for irradiation. However, on fresh fruit and vegetables, no such labels exist. Moreover, labeling DOES NOT identify vitamin-depleted foods due to irradiation, irradiated ingredients in compound or non-irradiated whole foods, or irradiated restaurant or institutional foods. Furthermore, labeling isn’t always conspicuous, as the text needn’t be larger than that of the ingredient list.
The Dangers of Irradiation
While North American acceptance has increased over the last twenty years, many consumers still reject irradiated food, despite general agreement on its safety. Beyond the misplaced belief that irradiated food is radioactive, several reasons serve the skeptics. Perhaps most immediate is irradiation’s effects on visible food quality. It alters the odour, colour, texture and even taste of many meats and vegetables, even to just a slight degree, while also affecting the flavour of dairy products and softening the tissue of fruits such as nectarines and peaches.
In terms of nutritional quality, irradiation also affects vitamin levels. The degree of vitamin loss depends on irradiation dose, temperature, food type and level of oxygen. But while supporters compare losses to that resulting from other food treatments, skeptics worry about cumulative losses. That is, they worry that between irradiation, food sitting in storage for long periods and cooking, nutrient depletion adds up. Continual consumption of nutrient-depleted foods can result in nutritional deficiencies.
Another concern is that irradiation can kill bacteria that produce warning smells in spoiled food, thus tricking consumers into thinking food is safe to eat. Also on the subject of masking other problems, irradiation doesn’t sufficiently clean up foods contaminated by unhygienic production lines (this includes fecal contamination), or those rife with pesticides, antibiotics, hormones and other agrichemicals. The food industry would benefit from improved production, storage, and processing, rather than settling on Band-Aid solutions like eliminating contamination in the final stages of production. And as near-sterile food is ripe (so to speak) for re-contamination upon reintroduction of bacteria, food handlers must handle irradiated food with even greater care.
Irradiation detractors also cite human and environmental health concerns. Workers in irradiation facilities always face the possibility of accidental exposure to radiation, while facility accidents have already caused radioactive spills, leading to contamination of local land and water supplies. The practice also tends to hurt local production and small farmers while benefiting multinational corporations, as long-lasting, irradiated food can be shipped further, even if it’s inferior in taste and nutrition. The fact that it travels longer distances means increases in air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, which in turn contribute to global warming.
Additionally, critics point to the creation of radiolytic products unique to irradiated foods, called unique radiolytic products (URP’s). In particular, 2-alkylcyclobutanone (2-ACB) and 2-dodecylcyclobutanone (2-DCB) are produced only in irradiated fatty foods. According to multiple studies (e.g. here and here), these URP’s may exhibit toxicity and promote tumours. Additionally, 2-DCB specifically has been found at high doses to damage DNA in rat colon cells. But finding toxicity in foods is almost as old as the practice of chemistry itself. Coffee, for example, contains carcinogens; yet there’s little concern over consuming the beverage in moderate quantities.
According to holistic health expert Dr Joseph Mercola, there are at least 10 good reasons to oppose food irradiation:
- In legalizing food irradiation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not determine a level of radiation to which food can be exposed and still be safe for human consumption, which federal law requires.
- In legalizing food irradiation, the FDA relied on laboratory research that did not meet modern scientific protocols, which federal law requires.
- Research dating to the 1950s has revealed a wide range of problems in animals that ate irradiated food, including premature death, a rare form of cancer, reproductive dysfunction, chromosomal abnormalities, liver damage, low weight gain and vitamin deficiencies.
- Irradiation can kill most bacteria in food, but it does nothing to remove the feces, urine, pus and vomit that often contaminate beef, pork, chicken and other meat. Irradiation will not kill the pathogen that causes mad cow disease.
- Irradiation destroys vitamins, essential fatty acids and other nutrients in food — sometimes significantly. The process destroys 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs, but the FDA nonetheless legalized irradiation of these products.
- Irradiation can change the flavor, odor and texture of food — sometimes disgustingly so. Pork can turn red; beef can smell like a wet dog; fruit and vegetables can become mushy; and eggs can lose their color, become runny and ruin recipes.
- Irradiation disrupts the chemical composition of everything in its path — not just harmful bacteria, which the food industry often asserts. Scores of new chemicals called “radiolytic products” are formed by irradiation — chemicals that do not naturally occur in food and that the FDA has never studied for safety.
- The World Health Organization did not follow its own recommendation to study the toxicity of “radiolytic products” formed in high-dose irradiated food before proposing in November 2000 that the international irradiation dose limit — equal to 330 million chest x-rays — be removed. XVIII, XIX
- Soon, some irradiation plants may use cesium-137, a highly radioactive waste material left over from the production of nuclear weapons. This material is dangerous and unstable. In 1988, a cesium-137 leak near Atlanta led to a $30 million, taxpayer-funded cleanup.
- Because it increases the shelf life of food and is used in large, centralized facilities, irradiation encourages globalization and consolidation of the food production, distribution and retailing industries. These trends have already forced multitudes of family farmers and ranchers out of business, reduced the diversity of products in the marketplace, disrupted local economies in developing nations, and put American farmers and ranchers at a great economic disadvantage.
The truth is that we aren’t entirely sure how potentially toxic irradiated food is. According to Organic Consumers Association, the longest human feeding study on record lasted fifteen weeks. And other than a small, questionable Indian study, none have demonstrated the effects of feeding babies or children diets consisting of irradiated foods. Without extensive, long-term investigation, we can’t know how safe these foods really are, specifically the safety of URP’s (especially the effects of 2-ACB on humans) and other chemical by-products, as well as the cumulative effects of diets heavy on irradiated food.
For now, the only real weapon consumers have is choice: if you value the nutritional content of your food, ensure that you eat as much organic meat, fruit, eggs, and vegetables as possible, and avoid all processed and restaurant food whenever possible.