Advantages and risks of food irradiation

There have been several debates over the advantages and
dangers of food
irradiation
in the past. However, food irradiation has steadily become a
common practise in the packaged food industry across the globe over the years.
Going forward, it is likely that food irradiation will increase as there is
growing sensitivity over health and hygiene concerns thanks to the COVID-19
pandemic. Due to the pandemic, people are becoming more sensitive to the kind
of food products they consume and are keen to make sure that the product meets
hygiene standards since pathogens present in packaged foods can lead to a host
of health concerns.

 The growing use food
irradiation has once again brought the advantages and risks debate into focus
since it is necessary for people to understand what irradiation means for their
food. At its core, irradiation is adopted by the food packaging industry
because of it helps kill pathogens from various types of meat products, food
grains, fruits, vegetables, milk, etc. Irradiation achieves this by the use of high-energy
rays such as electron beams, gamma rays and X-rays, which are targeted at the
food product to kill bacteria, insects and other types of living biological
matter. Thus, by treating food with irradiation, the likelihood of various food
borne illnesses such as E. coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria is drastically
reduced. Notably, this also helps prevent the transfer of predatory pests from
one geographical area to the other.

Besides killing pathogens present in food, irradiation also
helps extend the shelf-life of various products and reduces sprouting. This
also helps in maintaining the quality of a product for a longer duration of
time. It also reduces the product cost of packaged foods by reducing the need
for additives such as antioxidants
and preservatives. Furthermore, irradiation also helps in reducing the usage of
harmful chemicals in food treatment and pesticides in food grains; in several
cases, these procedures have been completely dropped in favour of irradiation.

However, irradiation also presents certain risks. Having said
this, the comparison between irradiation and exposure to radioactive substances
is a misconception. While it is true that radiation is involved in the process,
this radiation is only a fraction of what would be witnessed in the event of a
nuclear blast or explosion, such as in Chernobyl, or even an accidental leak
such as in the Three Mile Island accident. In fact, the radiation emitted
during the process is only slightly than radiation emitted from microwaves and
cell phone towards. At the same time, these small levels of radiation too can
have certain indirect side effects.

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The primary problem with radiation is that it can cause cell
mutations. In the case of irradiated foods, the greatest risk is that it can
lead to mutations in familiar bacteria. As a result, a type of bacterium which
is not harmful or for which people have developed widespread immunity could
become dangerous for the consumer. Besides this, such radiation may also change
the nature of the food product itself and lead to unique radiolytic products.
Such mutations within cells in the food can be carcinogenic to humans and
contribute to tumours. They may also have an effect on a person’s ability to
reproduce. Furthermore, irradiation can also lead to formation of volatile
chemicals like toluene, benzene and furan that are speculated to be the cause
for cancers and birth defects in new born children.

FMI Blog

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