The pros and cons of irradiated food

Irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, and it does kill dangerous bacteria, like the E.coli that killed many Europeans this summer. But it's also not a panacea against food poisoning and it's definitely not the most popular idea ever thought up. In a column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman examines the evidence behind irradiation, and how that evidence does and doesn't get considered in the choices we make about food.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.

Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”

There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”

Via Andy Revkin

Image: NAM - Nabob Irradiated Coffee, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from lifeontheedge's photostream


  1. To quote Bruce Willis’s character in ‘Fast Food Nation':
    “It is a sad fact of life, Don, but the truth is we all have to eat a little sh*t from time to time.”

  2. Ever been to Utah? Ra-di-a-tion. Yes, indeed. You hear the most
    outrageous lies about it. Half-baked goggle-box do-gooders telling
    everybody it’s bad for you. Pernicious nonsense. Everybody could stand a
    hundred chest X-rays a year. They ought to have them, too. When they
    canceled the project it almost did me in. One day my mind was full to
    bursting. The next day – nothing. Swept away. But I’ll show them. I had a
    lobotomy in the end.

  3. I remember a few summers ago the local grocery store started carrying irradiated ground beef. The idea was people could now grill and serve their hamburgers rare if they wanted to, while still avoiding the risk of eating incompletely cooked meat (especially ground meat). Given how popular medium and rare cooked hamburgers are, I thought this product would sell better than it did. It seemed like a great idea (though I dislike the taste of uncooked meat, so not so important to me). Of course it didn’t sell well, and the product was pulled at the end of summer. One might chalk it up to fear of the word ‘irradiated’, but I think it is just as likely that people don’t care about the risk of non-well-done hamburgers, or assess it to be lower than I do, and aren’t interested in paying the extra bucks to reduce an already small probability of infection to an even smaller probability of infection. 

  4.  You usually destroy more of the nutrition in food by cooking it, and free radicals are most likely harmless. (They were once thought to contribute to cell aging. Research now suggests they don’t. Rather, the observed free radicals in deteriorating cells were a bi-produced of cellular repair. With as much as has been investing in antioxidizing beauty products, it will probably take a decade for people to finally accept that.)

    Irradiating all food would be expensive. Irradiating imported food at ports would easily pay for itself by sterilizing the pests that tag along and go on to cost the USDA a fortune to deal with.

  5. I am only stopping in to say that every time a journalist types E. coli without italics (or proper capitalization or punctuation), somewhere a scientist dies a little. 

    1. Maybe they should worry less about style and more about not accidentally ingesting E coli.

      1. Depends. Which E. coli strain are you interested in and how much? My guts and your guts are full of E. coli, most of which is fairly harmless. It’s the occasional scary E. coli that gets you- O157 H7 and the other enterohemmorhagics are a fun group.

        Is it (and am I) a trivial bitch? Yes. It is something I expect boingboing to have down because they usually are one of the few online sources of science new that DOESN’T read like you handed a 10 year old a Nature paper and asked them to write a book report? Yes. I mean, come on, WIKIPEDIA has this down, you guys should by now as well. Higher standards.

          1. AND NOW *I* AM DYING. My death!  Courtesy of missing italics! And not having a scientifically detectable sense of humor! And… apparently a missing “s” up there in “news” because I cannot be trusted to type on the internet…. :)

  6. What bothers me:

    Not that irradiated food is poisonous, or radioactive, or has its nutrients stripped away*. I think all of those are nonsense scare stories.

    What alarms me is that food processors and slaughterhouses will almost certainly use irradiation as an excuse not to implement proper food handling procedures.

    * Seriously, is lack of nutrients actually a problem in America? You have to go far, far out to the margins of society to find people suffering from actual vitamin deficiencies.

    1. I have the impression that many Americans are simultaneously obese and malnourished. They’re not mutually exclusive.

  7. In a perfect world, you would not have to assume that your food was poisoned because it was inconvenient for the producers and processors to give shit and costs them money since their competitors aren’t inspected or regulated. In the meantime I’d pay a little extra for eggs, meat, and milk that I could eat without over cooking it.

  8. Just so long as food irradiation would prevent that roundworm posted by Maggie, I’m all for it.

  9. I’m all for irradiating ground beef. Hamburgers cooked to FDA guidelines are overcooked by culinary standards. Long ago I decided that if a restaurant was willing to serve me a medium-rare burger they were reasonably confident that it wasn’t going to make me sick.

  10. There was some bruhaha in Norway about this some years back. Earlier the regulation was that imported spices would be radiated on entry into the nation. Then they dropped that requirement. Some time after that i think a major producer of dried sausage had trouble with a contaminated production run that was traced to the spices used.

  11. So this is entirely missing the problem of “why don’t we ever use things properly?”

    (I’ll take irradiation if it means strawberries don’t go fuzzy so quickly.)

  12. Irradiating food doesn’t make it radioactive

    That depends on how it’s done. There are many different elements in food, and many of them have radioactive isotopes that might result from highly energetic radiation. So that glittering generality may be comforting but t’aint necessarily so.

  13. It may not leave food radioactive, but doesn’t it mean that there is more radioactivity, more opportunities to make radioactive mistakes, and more mining and processing of radioactive material?

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