How does food irradiation work?
Food irradiation is a method of extending the shelf life on foods. By using high-energy particles, the irradiation machinery emits radiation that eliminates or kills microbes in food products. This technique of food preservation may affect other food components, but the FDA recognizes this process as safe under the provided regulatory parameters.
The world leaders in food safety—including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)—recognize irradiated food as safe. Irradiation does bring up consumer concerns. The FDA website addresses consumer concerns by stating that “irradiation does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food. In fact, any changes made by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated”.
Here is a list of foods the FDA approves for irradiation: Beef and pork, crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab), fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce and spinach, poultry, seeds for sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts), shelled eggs, shellfish-molluscan (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops), and spices and seasonings.
By exposing foods to ionizing radiation, the process eliminates or kills the microbes in food products. There are three forms of radiation including the following: gamma rays from either cobalt or cesium, x-rays from reflecting a stream of electron particles from a heavy metal (the most well-known is lead), and electron beams by an electron accelerator.
Irradiation is a useful food processing technique. The FDA claims that irradiation can prevent foodborne illnesses, preserve food, control insects, delay sprouting and ripening, and sterilize food.
An important thing to consider when preparing food with irradiated products is that there can still be contamination and spoilage. In order the ensure your food is safe, store and handle irradiated products the same way non-irradiated products are to be handled. For example, irradiation does not ensure an irradiated raw egg is not going to cause illness if consumed raw. An irradiated egg still needs to be fully cooked prior to consumption. Unfortunately, putting an irradiated egg in a batch of cookie dough does not mean the cookie dough is safe to consume uncooked.