"I beseech you to take interest in these sacred domains so expressively called laboratories. Ask that there be more and that they be adorned for these are the temples of the future, wealth and well-being. It is here that humanity will grow, strengthen and improve. Here, humanity will learn to read progress and individual harmony in the works of nature, while humanity's own works are all too often those of barbarism, fanaticism and destruction." -- Louis Pasteur

Study Into The Irradiation Process In Meat

On the surface, food irradiation seems to be just another protective measure, like pasteurization, but as the USDA moved toward mandating that meat (namely beef) be irradiated, the practice became an issue, a cause to fight for or against. It became to many, another topic to fight over.

Irradiated food is my topic, and the CDC website is my primary source of data.


I intend to describe what irradiating food means, what the benefits are, and what the risks can be.

Quite obviously, irradiation is the process of sterilizing a product with waves of radiation. One method of passing the radiation waves through the food is by placing a radioactive material in close proximity to the product. Such as material is Cobalt 60, a substance long used for sterilizing medical tools.

The downside to this is the public conception of radioactive materials spread from such diverse sources as Stan Lee's

'Incredible X-men,' to Frederick Forsyth's 'The Odessa File,' in which Cobalt 60 is mentioned by name as the payload of the missiles the villains were building. Despite the stigma created by such popular writings, Cobalt 60 has a safe record of thirty years in hospitals around the world.

The other two methods of irradiating food is by using beam-emitters (like the electron gun in a television), or by using an x-ray machine. None of the three methods carry out a neutron bombardment,

or embed the food with radioactive material; the methods merely emit waves from different parts of the light spectrum.

The chief benefit from food irradiated is that the process passes ionized radiation through the meat, temporarily creating an environment in which pathogens can't survive. By that I mean their DNA molecules are "burned." When this happens, the organism cannot continue living.

Sounds dangerous? No. Because the meat is dead, it is not conducting any cellular activity, so there is no danger to those ingesting the food.

So that's the dope on it. Who could be against this? According to an unscientific 1999 CNN poll, thirty percent of those that took part. Among Scientific American readers in 1997, however, an Oregon man was the only dissenter to write to the editor (There was a total of five pages of letters for the issue posted on the website).

The real meat behind the opposition is described by the various publicans as anti-nuclear groups, "Kooks."

But opposition to irradiation also comes from the more rational. These advocates argue that the process eliminates some of the nutrients in food. The science doesn't necessarily refute this. For example, a 1981 study by the Journal of Food Science, republished by Idaho State University, indicates that beef loses roughly the same amount of its minerals through irradiation as it does through the canning process. These figures, while not exactly negligible, don't seem to out way the gains in safety.

Other than that, there these groups raise complaints about taste, and that the use of irradiation inevitably leads to neglect in food treatment. Well, to date, irradiated chicken, which has been on the market since 1993, sells just fine, so consumers don't seem to mind. The Center for Consumer Research does note that milk has an off flavor when subjected to low level radiation, but the point is moot, because milk isn't irradiated.


Frequently Asked Questions about Food Irradiation, CDC

I found this very trustworthy in that gave me a look deep into the science.

FOOD FRIGHT By David Hemsley, Scientific American, November 03, 1997.

A peach!

The Role of Irradiation in Food Safety

Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., M.P.H., and Andrew P. Norgan

April 29, 2004 Number 18, The New England Journal of Medicine.

Unfortunately, I could only access a summary, but even so, it provided enough for fact-checking.

Food Irradiation Frequently Asked Questions

By Charlotte P. Brennand, PhD, Extension Food Safety Specialist, Idaho

State University

This was almost a match for the CDC. I particularly liked the emphasis on study results.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration

A fine supplement to the CDC. It gave special insights into the process of killing bugs with rays.

What's the Beef? By Alan Hall, Scientific American, November 03, 1997.

Sometimes I tire of SA. They can think of government as God, and regulation as God's infallible instrument. The irradiation argument was nice and compelling, but these writers like to call for regulation without even thinking about it.

Raw meat irradiation rules go into effect, CNN, February 22, 2000 See below. USDA approves irradiation for meat, CNN, December 15, 1999

Gives an OK overview, and works well to provide information on why this is a sticky issue.

Center for Consumer Research

This site is Too general to trust.

CNN web poll created Wed Dec 15, 1999

Being an unscientific opinion poll, not reliable at all!

Results of that CNN poll (used without permission):

Do you think it's safe to eat meat that has been irradiated to kill bacteria?
7026014 votes
No 3011229 votes
Total: 37243 votes

My copyright doesn't apply to the poll.