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Irradiation makes foods safer, proper handling still necessary
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Irradiation technology significantly decreases the risk of bacteria and parasite contamination in foods, but consumers must still handle the food properly.
Irradiation is the process of exposing food products to radiant energy including gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays in amounts approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The technology is not new, and its increased use over the last few years prompted Mississippi State University's Extension Service to educate area agents about this technology.
"The FDA has been doing research regarding food irradiation for about 50 years, so the technology is not new," explained Melissa Mixon, Extension human nutrition specialist. "But irradiation is now being used more widely in the food industry, and we feel that our area nutrition and food safety agents need to be on the cutting edge of this development."
A summer program on the Starkville MSU campus gave those agents relevant information on irradiation. They will in turn work to bring about a public understanding and acceptance of the process.
"We're very fortunate in the United States to have the safest food supply in the world, but our food will never be sterile," Mixon said. "Irradiation is one step we can take to reduce the chances of contracting illnesses from bacteria and parasites in our food."
Mixon said irradiation significantly reduces the numbers of these pathogens, which allows the public to consume a safer product. But consumers must still properly handle and prepare foods to prevent food-borne illnesses.
"If your hands are dirty, if the surface you're using to prepare the food is dirty, if the utensils are dirty, you can recontaminate foods," Mixon explained. "Irradiation is another way to make sure that our food is safe, but it doesn't eliminate the responsibility of the person preparing the food to handle it correctly."
The nutritionist compared food irradiation to the pasteurization of milk, saying that in a few years irradiation will most likely be the norm for foods bought in grocery stores.
"Right now, we're in a mode of change, and people aren't always comfortable with that," Mixon said. "But we don't live in a sterile society, so we have to try to prevent bacteria or parasites from getting into our foods."
One common fear that consumers have regarding irradiation is that the process causes cancer, but Mixon said there is no basis for this idea. Studies show that there is no discernable change in the nutritional content of food after it is irradiated.
Irradiated meat and poultry found in grocery stores typically cost between 2 and 5 cents more per pound than non-irradiated versions, but Mixon believes that price will eventually decrease.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety and Inspection Service require that irradiated foods be labeled as such. The radura logo, which is the international symbol for irradiation, must be on the labels of all packages that have been treated with irradiation, along with the phrase "treated by irradiation" or "treated with radiation."
Currently, only refrigerated or frozen raw meat and poultry products, meat byproducts and certain other meat food products may be irradiated. Examples of products that can be irradiated are whole or cut-up birds, skinless poultry, pork chops, roasts, stew meat, liver, hamburgers and ground meat. Approval is pending for cooked meats and poultry products such as luncheon meats and hot dogs.
U.S. food regulations also allow the irradiation of wheat and wheat powder, white potatoes, 38 spices and dry vegetable seasonings, and fresh fruits. Irradiation is used for several non-food functions regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, including medical treatments, sterilizing medical products, destroying bacteria in cosmetics, making nonstick cookware coatings and making tires more durable.
The USDA and the FSIS inspect all irradiated foods, which must meet state and federal regulations. Meat and poultry processors that use irradiation also must meet sanitation and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point regulations.
For more information regarding food irradiation and MSU-Extension's educational role, phone Mixon at (662) 325-3080.