NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Food Irradiation is Cheap and Beneficial

April 30, 2004

If half of the food consumed in the United States was irradiated, foodborne illnesses would decline by 900,000 annually and deaths would decline by 352, according to the Centers for Disease Control and the New England Journal of Medicine.

Like Pasteurization, exposing food to a burst of radiant energy is a beneficial, cheap and safe to use method of killing disease organisms, say researchers. It is approved for use by the U.S. government, science, and health-related organizations, yet remains underutilized:

  • Irradiation increases the shelf life of foods, while decreasing losses resulting from spoilage and pests; irradiation also controls pathogens and parasites, and inhibits the sprouting of vegetables.
  • Irradiation is cheap, costing consumers less than five cents per pound for meat or poultry, when done on large volumes of food products.
  • However, only 10 percent of herbs and spices and less than 0.002 percent of fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry are irradiated.

Opponents of food irradiation claim it is dangerous and cite a study done in Europe in 2002, where the synthesized chemical 2-ACB (found in irradiated foods) was found to be a carcinogen. However, the carcinogenic effect of 2-ACB was found in concentrations that were 1,000 times more than what is found in irradiated foods. The World Health Organization eventually concluded that the findings were not relevant to irradiated foods.

Opponents also claim that irradiation destroys the nutrient content of food, but the American Dietetic Association has not found any link between irradiation and the break down of important nutrients and molecules in such foods.

As food irradiation is debated, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is already offering irradiated ground beef to the National School Lunch Program, and it is estimated that the Food and Drug Administration will soon approve the use of irradiation on cold cuts and processed meats.

Source: Michael T. Osterholm and Andrew P. Norgan, "The Role of Irradiation in Food Safety," and Donald W. Thayer, "Irradiation of Food - Helping to Ensure Food Safety," New England Journal of Medicine, April 29, 2004; Robert V. Tauxe, "Food Safety and Irradiation: Protecting From Foodborne Infections," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 2001.

For CDC study


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