Irradiation in the Production and Processing of Food
• Food irradiation (the application of ionizing radiation to food) is the process of exposing food to a very high source of energy (i.e., gamma rays, x-rays, or electronic beams) that strip electrons from individual atoms in targeted microbes, rendering them harmless.
• Irradiation is used to preserve food, reduce risk of foodborne illness, prevent the spread of invasive pests, delay or eliminate sprouting or ripening, and for sterilization. It does not remove pathogens, but inactivates them and inhibits their growth.
• In 1999, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) put forth a proposed rule to: (1) Amend meat inspection regulations to permit the use of ionizing radiation for refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat byproducts and certain other meat food products, and (2) Revise existing regulations concerning the use of ionizing radiation in poultry.
• In February 2000, this final rule was made effective.
• In December 2012, the USDA established two new rules that expanded options for meat and poultry producers using ionized radiation. These rules: (1) Allow for the irradiation of unrefrigerated raw meat (previously only refrigerated or frozen meats could be irradiated), and (2) Increase the dose of absorbed ionized radiation in poultry from 3.0 kilogray (kGY) to 4.5 kGY.
• April 15, 2014, the USDA allowed the use of irradiation to control foodborne pathogens and to extend shelf life.
The general public has been taught that irradiation produces completely safe, pathogen-free food, but they have been falsely educated by irradiation advocates, the most vocal being manufacturers of irradiation equipment.
It is crucial that the American public understand that:
- Irradiation is NOT effective against all pathogenic organisms.
- Food can become re-contaminated before reaching consumers if it is not irradiated in its final packaging.
- Irradiation is a reduction technology, not an elimination technology.
To ensure that irradiation is used as it was intended (as a reduction technology), only products meeting stringent microbial standards should be eligible for irradiation.
- The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) should establish a maximum initial microbial load performance standard for meat or poultry that is to be irradiated.
- Companies should then irradiate with minimum required dosages that will effectively ensure pathogen reduction to another specific performance standard.
- A system should be created to ensure that each lot of treated product has received the specified dose it was allotted.
- End product testing and traceback mechanisms should also be put in place.
All labeling must clearly detail the limitations of irradiation and the need for food preparers to continue practicing safe food handling and cooking food at safe temperatures.
Irradiation has the potential to be an effective safety measure for reducing pathogens in seafood. However, it is not a panacea for food contamination and should be closely monitored so as not to become a perverse incentive for lower food safety standards that are not in compliance with HACCP regulations.