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The food industry is going high-tech with a seemingly innocent procedure called irradiation — a process that delays ripening by exposing food to radioactive materials that kill insects, mold, and bacteria.

Critics point out that irradiation may produce food products that at best have lower nutritional value; at worst are carcinogenic. Irradiation also poses significant health threats to workers and the public in transportation, storage, and disposal of radioactive waste. And there is real concern over the safety of radioactive devices used in food, beverage, cosmetic, and drug industries.

While spices are the first irradiated edibles marketed in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also has approved irradiation for use on produce and some meats. Interestingly, the FDA regulates irradiation not as a process but as an additive.

The question, of course, is exactly what is “added” to irradiated food? Irradiated food looks and smells better for an extended time, but little is known about the chemical changes induced by the process.

One science writer posed the complex issues when he asked “What do you get when you irradiate an apple with 100,000 rads of gamma rays. Is that irradiation a process or an additive? Who should control it? Does it pose a carcinogenic threat to humans? Since it reduces food spoilage and replaces dangerous pesticides, is it a blessing for the world’s hungry?” And then he asked, “Why are there no answers to these questions?”

Meanwhile, the track record in irradiation facilities is anything but reassuring. The Radiation Technology plant in Far Rockaway, New Jersey, was closed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for willfully supplying false information about repeated safety violations; the NRC also shut down International Nutronics in Dover, New Jersey, after workers reported a cover-up of a radioactive spill of a tank of water containing cobalt-60 rods; and workers in Isomedix Co., Parsippany, New Jersey, were told to clean up leaks by pouring radioactive water down bathroom toilets and sinks.

Earlier this year, the NRC suspended the use of an industrial air-purifying device that leaked tiny particles of radioactive polonium at plants around the nation. The NRC also order 3M to recall for inspection all 45,000 of the ionizing air guns used to control static electricity and remove dust from product containers. Of 828 plants inspected so far, contamination was found at 118 sites; of those, the radiation exceeded the reportable limit of .005 microcuries in 39 plants. Subsequently, the NRC recalled 2,500 3M units used in the food, beverage, cosmetic and drug industries.

Given the potential problems, one would expect to find the irradiation issue on the national media agenda; but it isn’t. Meanwhile, as serious questions go unanswered, the government has proposed federal regulations that would allow more irradiation.


UTNE READER, May/June 1987, “Irradiation Business Gears Up,” by Karin Winegar, pp 29-30; SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER SPECTRA, 2/25/88, “Food Irradiation,” by Rick Weiss, pp El-E2, reprinted from SCIENCE NEWS; S. F. EXAMINER (AP), 2/19/88, “Ionizing guns recalled over radiation fear,” p A5.