Irradiation is a new interesting way to process food. It comes with many benefits and some questions. Many of the foods we eat daily have been exposed to radiation at some point while being processed. The proper irradiation of food is critical to the well-being and health of any person. There are various reasons that food is irradiated, and this paper will explore the issue of food irradiation, the three different methods, and the benefits that come from the process. It will also answer some commonly asked questions.
There are three main methods used to irradiate food that include accelerated electrons (also called E-beam), X-rays, and Gamma rays. They are all commonly used, and the base principles of each method are the same. Food is loaded onto a conveyor belt and is then sent through a radiation room for exposure (Food Irradiation). However, each method has unique pros and cons.
The E-beam method uses a tube that is similar to the tube in a television to accelerate electrons to near the speed of light, which are then sent straight through the food (Bruhn). Although simple and easy, the use of the E-beam is limited because it can only penetrate about 3 centimeters of the food source, so the food being processed must be thin for complete penetration. A common practice used to increase penetration with the E-beam method is to flip the product over after being irradiated once and send it back through the radiation room for another exposure. However, the down side to flipping the product over is that it requires more contact with the food and the food must be able to tolerate the extra handling. It also takes more time to complete the process, which decreases productivity (Kunstadt).
The X-ray method is based on principles similar to an x-ray tube used for medical diagnostic purposes, except it is more powerful. Like the E-beam, the x-ray tube accelerates electrons to just about the speed of light. Then they collide with a piece of metal and produce a lot of heat and a small number of x-rays. This method is similar to E-beam in the sense that it can be switched off when no exposure is desired, but an important benefit that the X-ray method has over the E-beam is that penetration can be up to, and sometimes exceed, 15 inches depending on the density of the food (UW Food Irradiation Education Group).
The Gamma ray process is different compared to the two previously discussed processes. In a gamma ray facility, food is exposed to radiation that is coming from a radioactive substance. There are a few different substances used in each gamma ray facility, and the most common is cobalt-60. Unlike the E-beam and X-ray method you cannot turn the radiation on and off when using cobalt-60. Therefore, to control exposure, a large water bath about 6 to 7 meters deep is utilized to completely submerge the cobalt-60 which absorbs the radiation coming from the substance when they do not wish to irradiate the food. Then when it is time to start irradiating again the cobalt-60 is taken out of the water and the radiation can penetrate more than 24 inches of food depending on its density (Kunstadt). Because of the penetrability of gamma rays, food that is sent into the radiation room does not need to be unpackaged which increases the volume of food that can be processed in these facilities (Bruhn).
Another interesting aspect about the gamma ray process is that there seems to be less unexpected maintenance. If an E-beam or X-ray machine malfunctions or is down for one reason or another, they cannot do anything until it is fixed. A radioactive isotope is going to give off radiation no matter what (Kunstadt). The only real issue then, is that over time, the radioactive substance being used will start to decay. The good news is that with the widely used cobalt-60, which has a half-life of 5 years, there is a workable timeframe so replacement is expected and foreseeable (UW Food Irradiation Education Group).
What are the implications of the radiation on food? First, there are many benefits of food irradiation. Contrary to the belief, the irradiation of food actually increases the safety of the consumer by killing numerous bacteria such as E. Coli, Salmonella and many others (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition). Radiation also kills off insects that may be on fruits and vegetables from being out in open fields. The exposure to radiation also causes delayed sprouting in many vegetables and slows the rate at which fresh fruits ripen, which in turn increases the amount of time allotted to eat the food before it goes bad (Food Irradiation). Through the process, food does not undergo any significant nutritional change from the radiation exposure (UW Food Irradiation Education Group).
Another interesting benefit of food radiation is in the healthcare field. That is, food irradiation can, in some cases, completely sterilize food. Sterilization is important because there are a lot of patients in the hospital that receive treatments for various reasons that severely weaken their immune system. When these patients are treated, there is a multitude of precautions that are put in place to greatly lessen their risk of infection from foreign bodies. The sterilization of food through irradiation is a great way to completely eliminate the risk of disease transmission through foodborne pathogens. In fact, according to the Food and Drug Administration NASA astronauts eat meat that has been sterilized through radiation when in space (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition).
The important question to ask now is “is irradiated food safe to eat?” Some people also ask if food that is exposed to radiation becomes radioactive? How do we know that this process is ultimately safe and okay for humans? The answers are simple. Food irradiation is a completely safe practice according to the studies of the FDA, USDA, CDC, and WHO (Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition). Food does not become radioactive from this process because it never comes in contact with radioactive material. However, irradiated food is not considered organic by the USDA (Food Irradiation). Another question that is important is “will this process raise the cost of food in the store?” The answer is yes, but not drastically. The estimated increase in prices of irradiated vegetables is about two to three cents per pound and meats may go up approximately three to five cents per pound (UW Food Irradiation Education Group).
In conclusion, food irradiation is not only a safe practice of preservation by extending shelf life, but it also keeps consumers safe by killing bacteria and other microorganisms at a very low cost.
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