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.