Food irradiation is being promoted by some international bodies and industry groups as the answer to the growing problem of food poisoning, and as a means to combat world hunger by reducing spoilage and extending food shelf life. A proposal to relax the global standards governing food irradiation, including the removal of the current maximum irradiation dose limit, is now under discussion.
The European Commission is also deliberating over whether to extend its list of foods permitted for irradiation in all EU member states. The current list includes only herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings, but the possible extension would mean many other foods could be irradiated in all member states. Yet consumer concerns persist over the numerous potential negative impacts of irradiating food.
Food irradiation can result in loss of nutrients, for example vitamin E levels can be reduced by 25% after irradiation and vitamin C by 5-10%. This is compounded by the longer storage times of irradiated foods, and by loss of nutrients during cooking, which can result in the food finally eaten by the consumer to contain little more than ’empty calories’. This is potentially damaging to the long and short-term health of consumers, particularly for sections of society already failing to obtain adequate nutrition.
When food is exposed to high doses of ionising radiation, the chemical composition and nutritional content of food can change. Radiolytic by-products are often formed in irradiated food. Very few of these chemicals have been adequately studied for toxicity. One such chemical – 2-DCB – can cause DNA damage in rat colon cells at high doses.
Food irradiation does not inactivate dangerous toxins which have already been produced by bacteria prior to irradiation. In some cases, such as C. botulinum, it is the toxin produced by the bacteria, rather than the bacteria itself, which poses the health hazard.
Extension of the EU list of foods permitted for irradiation could mean that in future a significant part of the diet of consumers will consist of irradiated foods. The long-term impacts of this to health remain unknown. Far more research is required prior to exposing populations to such a diet.
Irradiating products such as mechanically recovered chicken meat, offal and egg white, could mislead consumers into thinking these are safer. There is therefore a risk that consumers will fail to take necessary measures to prevent cross-contamination. The risk of recontamination of food after irradiation is very serious as a near sterile food is an ideal medium for very rapid growth of re-introduced bacteria. Irradiated food must therefore be handled with even greater care in homes and restaurants.
Irradiation can cause mutations in bacteria and viruses leading to potentially resistant strains.
Irradiating fruit and vegetables to extend their shelf life can mislead consumers by making ‘old’ food look ‘fresh’. The greater the age of fruit and vegetables, the lower their nutritional value, not to mention the effects of ageing on their tastes and flavours.
Consumers may be dangerously misled because irradiation also unavoidably kills off bacteria that produce warning smells indicating that the food is going ‘off’.
The irradiation of some products, such as dried fruit and flakes or germs of cereal, often considered as health foods (eg. muesli), could lead them to become misperceived by consumers as inherently contaminated food types.
Misuse of the Technology
Food irradiation can and has been used to mask poor hygiene practices in food production. With irradiation, contamination can be sterilised. This reduces the incentive to clean up sloppy food processing operations – the industry is provided with a ‘quick fix’ as an alternative to dealing with the sources of the problem. The consumer has a right to expect clean food, yet irradiation can lead to the increased production of food contaminated with dirt -‘clean’ dirt.
Irradiation can be used to maintain or even worsen poor standards of animal husbandry. Overcrowding of animals whist rearing and prior to slaughter, as well as the use of cheap but inappropriate feeds, all contribute to contamination of animal products such as meat, poultry and eggs. Cleaning up these products at the end of the production line removes the incentive to improve animal welfare.
Breaches of existing labelling legislation have occurred in European countries, with the sale of unlabelled irradiated foods. This was recently discovered to be occurring again by a UK government detection survey which found that nearly half the food supplements sampled were illegally irradiated and unlabelled (see press releases). Under these circumstances the consumers’ right to choice is flouted. Relaxation of irradiation standards could worsen this situation.
If they succeed, on-going industry efforts in the US to substitute the term ‘irradiation’ on irradiated food labels with terms such as ‘cold pasteurisation’ could serve to confuse and mislead consumers.
The Safety of Workers
Workers risk accidental exposure to dangerous levels of radiation, particularly at irradiation plants using radioactive sources.
The use of irradiation to sterilise meat at the end of the production line allows slaughter lines to be run at dangerously high speeds, since the greater contamination that occurs during high speed carving of carcasses can be ‘cleaned up’ at the end of the line. This approach increases the risk of accidents and fatalities by forcing meat packers to work faster than ever.
Food irradiation is not a low-cost method. Irradiation plants are expensive and could help large multinationals to eliminate smaller and more local producers. Requirements for improved security measures at all facilities holding radioactive materials, are likely to increase the costs of irradiation plants, leading to an increase in the prices of irradiated foods.
Irradiation supports greater globalisation of food production and supply, threatening local farmers and food processors.
It has been reported that numerous unrecovered losses and thefts of radioactive materials occur each year. Recent events have raised concerns over the potential for terrorists to obtain these materials for use in ‘dirty bombs’. A dirty bomb uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials. Such an attack could cause radiation contamination over several city blocks, but probably no deaths from radiation because of the low doses as the material is dispersed. Such an attack could spread panic and have significant economic impacts. It would require lengthy cleanup operations, although these materials are fairly easily detected.
Accidents at radioactive irradiation plants have already led to radioactive spills and contamination of surrounding land and water resources. This could happen again.
The construction of more irradiation plants could necessitate more transportation of radioactive materials, entailing risks of accidents and radioactive leaks over a wider area.
Irradiation allows food to be transported over greater distances, leading to greater air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming.
The Food Irradication Campaign Believes that
the precautionary principle should be asserted until chemical by-products formed in irradiated foods have been adequately studied for toxicity in compliance with modern scientific protocols, and are proven safe for consumption.
food irradiation is no solution for cleaning up foods that are contaminated due to unhygienic production lines.
priority should focus on improving production, storage, and processing, rather than on killing off contamination at the last stage.
food irradiation benefits the industry rather than consumers, and large multinational companies rather than local and small-scale producers.
food irradiation works against local food supplies and its application for mass commodities is likely to undermine sustainability.
Good food doesn’t need irradiating.