Issue: October 2017
October 17, 2017
1 min read

Should all food be irradiated?

Issue: October 2017
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The FDA has been evaluating the process of food irradiation for decades and has found it to be safe. However, although the FDA has approved the process for numerous commonly consumed items, irradiated food remains rare in the United States.

Francisco Diez-Gonzalez

Infectious Disease News asked Francisco Diez-Gonzalez, PhD, director of the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, if all food consumed in the U.S. should be irradiated.

Food irradiation is a very effective technology that has multiple applications in the food supply, but its use for all foodstuffs is just not possible because it is inherently limited by a variety of factors. At the same time, ironically, for those food items for which its application would be highly beneficial and compatible, consumer misconceptions have largely prevented the marketing of irradiated products.

Food irradiation is the term used for any technology that uses electromagnetic waves to kill living organisms resulting in extending food shelf life and minimizing foodborne disease. The two main types of high-energy irradiation are gamma radiation and high-energy electron radiation. The effectiveness and safety of these technologies on many food items have been extensively corroborated. Food irradiation is used to kill viruses, bacteria, fungi, parasites and insects.

The first limitation to subjecting any food to irradiation is the intrinsic characteristics of the food itself. Many foods have been successfully tested and approved to be irradiated such as spices, poultry, fresh produce, and beef, among others, but other foods are not irradiated because it could have a negative impact on their flavor and shelf life. The availability of multiple food preservation technologies currently used such as heating, drying and freezing that are more suitable and effective than irradiation is the second constraint to the idea of widespread irradiation use. The third limitation is simply that it would be almost impossible to have sufficient irradiation facilities for the entire food supply.

Irradiation should be applied to specific foods in which there is no alternative and effective technology available. Treating fresh produce that can potentially be contaminated by pathogenic bacteria and parasites is the single application with the highest public health benefit potential. If consumers were willing to accept irradiated sprouts, lettuce and spinach, the number of salmonellosis and enterohemorrhagic Escherichia coli cases would be drastically reduced.

Disclosure: Diez-Gonzalez reports no relevant financial disclosures.