Life Times Newsletter

May/June 2003
Vol. 5, No.3

Irradiation lowers food safety risk for most

What do cosmetics, feminine products, Band-Aids, bulk spices, disposable diapers, medical devices and hamburger have in common? They are all products irradiated to protect consumers from bacterial contamination.

When hamburger is treated, an electrically generated beam of high-speed electrons scans across the packaged item, breaking up DNA strands in the bacteria so they die or fail to reproduce. NASA has used this technology for years to protect astronauts from food- borne illness.

Non-food items do not need to be labeled, but food items sport a "radura." This is an international symbol resembling a stylized flower that identifies products treated with this extra safety precaution.

Although anyone might appreciate the additional peace of mind irradiated meats offer, people who stand to benefit most are the elderly, children under age 4, pregnant women and those with impaired immune systems. For these, a case of food poisoning can be much more devastating than a few days of an upset stomach.

Irradiation performed on pre-packaged products effectively destroys 99.9 percent of existing bacteria. However, it does not protect the product from abuse afterwards. Consumers must still handle hamburger with care and use within one or two days.

Joanie Taylor, director of consumer affairs and community relations at Schnucks Markets, advises, "All ground meat, including irradiated meat, should be handled properly. It must be kept refrigerated below 40oF, prepared with clean hands and utensils, and cooked to 160oF."

Food irradiation does not impact nutritional value. Certain vitamins can be minimally decreased, comparable to canning, cooking, freezing and drying. Some foods may have slight taste changes due to the process, just as pasteurized milk differs in taste from unpasteurized milk.

The irradiated ground chuck sold by Schnucks Markets comes in special opaque plastic packs called "chub-packs," similar to sausage packages. The additional cost is about 10 cents per pound. "Sales so far have been as projected," says Taylor. "It is a choice we wanted to offer."

Many people are already comfortable with safety of the ground meat they purchase and like being able to see the meat through the shrink-wrap. It will take time for acceptance of irradiated meat in its opaque packaging.

Acceptance will come as more irradiated foods appear in the marketplace and people try this new choice. Just as we now accept pasteurized milk as an important way to protect our health, irradiation is a viable weapon to combat foodborne illness and food spoilage losses.

Uses for food irradiation

Preserve food _ destroys or inactivates organisms that cause spoilage and decomposition. Results produce products that are closer to fresh in texture and flavor.

Sterilize food _ some foods such as grain and spices can be stored for years without refrigeration.

Control sprouting, ripening and insect damage _ a residue-free alternative to pesticides and chemicals. Irradiated strawberries stay unspoiled up to three weeks, compared to three to five days for untreated berries.

Control foodborne illness - eliminates pathogens that cause foodborne illness, such as E. coli, salmonella, campylobacter, listeria, and shigella.

Is food irradiation safe?
According to the Institute of Food Science and Technology: "Irradiation, carried out under conditions of Good Manufacturing Practice, is commended as a safe and effective food processing method that can reduce the risk of food poisoning and preserve foods without detriment to health and with minimum effect in nutritional quality."

Irradiated food approval
The USDA and FDA work together to approve irradiated foods. Foods approved, or with approval pending, include raw meat/poultry, fresh produce, dry foods (spices, grains), fresh produce, ready to eat meats (hot dogs, deli meats), and animal feed.

"The FDA requires that this symbol, called a radura, appear on irradiated food products."

Pamela Ingram
Dietetic Student
St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley

Cynthia Fauser, MS, RD, LD
Nutrition Specialist

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University of Missouri Extension Editor: Roxanne T. Miller