Food Irradiation: Health Canada misleads Canadians


Food irradiation is a method of food preservation in which foods are exposed to gamma radiation from Cobalt 60, Cesium 137 or an electron accelerator. The gamma radiation can sterilize or kill insects, and kill fungi and some bacteria that live in foods. Smaller doses can prevent sprouting or potatoes and onions, and delay the ripening of certain fruits. Irradiation can increase the storage life of some foods, allowing importers and distributors to ship foods further and store them longer. These foods do not become radioactive, but contrary to the conclusions of Health Canada, we believe that there are serious risks and drawbacks to the use of this technology.

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Chemical by-products called "unique radiolytic products" (URPs) are created in foods by irradiation. Some scientific studies carried out on URPs link serious health risks with the consumption of irradiated foods.

Irradiated foods are less nutritious than fresh foods because radiation damages some vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids. Normal cooking methods and storage of foods will also cause nutritional losses, but irradiation plus cooking and storage decreases the nutritional value even more. Many vitamins are obtained from fresh fruits and vegetables.

Irradiation has been hailed as an alternative to pesticides. However, at best irradiation might replace some post-harvest uses since pesticides will still be used in the field. Studies have not been done to determine the consequences of irradiating the pesticide residues commonly found in foods.

Irradiation will not replace many additives commonly used in processed foods. In fact, some additives need to be used in combination with irradiation to control undesirable side-effects.

Irradiation of poultry is being proposed as a means for preventing salmonella food poisoning. In fact, less than 20% of salmonella poisoning cases can be traced back to poultry. A more effective solution is education about proper storage, handling and cooking of all foods which may carry the salmonella bacteria.

Irradiation can actually cause food poisoning since treated foods may be contaminated but appear fresh. Microorganisms which normally cause meat to look or smell spoiled may be killed by irradiation, yet hardier bacteria, such as the one causing botulism food poisoning, may survive. Some organisms may even mutate when irradiated, forming new, more radiation-resistant strains.

Aflatoxin is a toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance produced by a bacteria which inhabits damp grains, beans and nuts. Aflatoxin poisoning is a major cause of death in Asia and Africa. Irradiation of this bacteria actually causes it to produce more aflatoxin. Building dry storage facilities is a more practical way to control this organism.

Increased use of food irradiation will increase occupational and environmental hazards. The level of gamma radiation inside an operating irradiation facility is anywhere from ten to hundreds of times the level that would kill a human in a single short exposure. The gamma source for irradiation must be replaced regularly, so the risk of transportation accidents increases with time. Spent gamma sources also become radioactive waste, and there is still no acceptable method of long-term radioactive waste management.

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