Food Safety: Alternatives to Irradiation: Bypassing a Controversial Technique

By Hunter, Beatrice Trum | Consumers' Research Magazine, July 2003 | Go to article overview

Food Safety: Alternatives to Irradiation: Bypassing a Controversial Technique


Hunter, Beatrice Trum, Consumers' Research Magazine


Food processors constantly seek out techniques to keep foods safe. Salting, brining, smoking, dehydrating, fermenting, pickling, boiling, pasteurizing, canning, and freezing are time-honored methods that kill pathogens in food and render food safe. Certain chemicals added to foods keep them from becoming moldy or rancid. Innovative food containers, such as aseptic packaging and vacuum packaging, also help keep foods safe.

Food Irradiation. The use of radiation is a further extension in this progression. However, radiation-treatment of food has been a highly controversial technique since its inception. It has not been embraced by wary consumers and reluctant food processors. Despite aggressive campaigns by proponents of this technique, many individuals remain unconvinced, and some scientists remain skeptical. Among them is Dr. William W. Au, an environmental toxicologist in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the Medical Branch of the University of Texas in Galveston.

Dr. Au offered his comments to the Food and Drug Administration concerning food irradiation petitions pending for the agency's consideration. Au submitted his statement as an expert affidavit on the safety aspects of irradiated foods. He contends that ionizing radiation is a well-established teratogen (a substance capable of inducing birth defects), a mutagen (a substance capable of inducing genetic changes) and a carcinogen (a substance capable of inducing cancer.) Ionizing radiation interacts with cellular macromolecules present in foods and generates toxic products. Also, Au expressed concerns that, to date, the health hazards of irradiated foods have not been evaluated adequately. He added, "Whenever other processing methods or combinations of methods that are equally effective in reducing the risk of foodborne disease are available, the use of the radiation procedure should be avoided."

To "sell" irradiation, proponents have attempted to have the radiation symbol dropped from the food label, and to substitute the phrase "cold pasteurization" for radiation to assuage public fears. The term "pasteurization" is incorrect and misleading. "Cold" meaning non-thermal is not unique to this technique. Indeed, food processors have developed numerous non-thermal techniques that are safe and effective, and have bypassed food irradiation. The public needs to know about these alternatives. (For past articles on the irradiation of foods, see "Food for Thought" CR, June 1982 and "Food for Thought" CR, August 1985. For an article discussing the potential benefits of irradiation, see "Irradiation Can Safeguard Mail--and Food, Too!" CR, February 2002.)

Ozone. Ozone is used to disinfect foods as well as the water and equipment used in processing foods. Ozone can purify drinking water because it kills bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Salmonella, as well as parasites, viruses, and fungi. As a sanitizing agent, ozone is replacing chlorine in many applications. Although chlorine is effective, it can form toxic trihalomethanes (THMs) and become an environmental contaminant. Ozonated water disinfects food-contact surfaces without leaving any residue. Although chlorine has been used to control some pathogens on fresh fruits and vegetables, it has limited ability to kill harmful bacteria. The produce industry anticipates regulatory curbing actions on chlorine's use with fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, ozone was given GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) status by the FDA in 1997, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture has also granted approval.

Food-processing operators use ozonated water directly on some foods. Raw animal foods (meat, fish, and poultry), and raw sprouts can be treated with aqueous ozone, which dissipates rapidly and leaves no residue. Surveys by an independent marketing research group learned that consumers, given a choice of irradiation, chlorine, or ozone to keep foods safe, overwhelmingly chose ozone (by 80%). …

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