During irradiation, gamma rays, x-rays, or high-energy electrons pass through the food, destroying or inactivating bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness.
The recent news of Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and three Cabinet ministers eating a meal that included fish sashimi harvested off the shores of Fukushima has garnered worldwide attention. The Japanese government was attempting to quell concerns following the controlled release of treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant.
While the move was aimed to reassure the public about the safety of seafood sourced from the region, it has led to distorted narratives and unfounded fears about the safety of irradiated foods. Do they become radioactive? Do they lose their nutritional value?
Before we answer these questions, let’s understand what food irradiation means (and how it has nothing to do with the controversial release of water from any nuclear power plant). Many of the traditional methods of food processing make use of energy in some form – the heat used in sun-drying, for example. Food irradiation employs a particular form of electromagnetic energy, that is, the energy of ionizing radiation. During irradiation, gamma rays, x-rays, or high-energy electrons pass through the food, destroying or inactivating bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness.
The process eliminates harmful bacteria, parasites, and pathogens, extending shelf life and enhancing safety. It’s vital to note that the edible items never come into direct contact with the radioactive energy source. Instead, the radiation passes through the food, effectively exterminating harmful bacteria like salmonella and E. coli, without lingering within the food itself.
Fears of adverse health effects from consuming irradiated foods are unfounded; extensive research supports their safe consumption. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have also endorsed the safety of irradiated food. Regulated by international agencies, food irradiation adheres to stringent guidelines.
A wide array of foods, including dairy products, fruits and vegetables, as well as meats have been subjected to irradiation since several years to ensure safety and hygiene standards. In fact, irradiation is used to sterilise foods, which can then be stored for longer period without refrigeration. Such sterilised foods are used in hospitals for patients with severely impaired immune systems as well as in space for astronauts.
In order to counter the growing misinformation about irradiated foods, it’s important to understand the science behind this technology, and make informed dietary choices. Trust facts.