What is the process of food irradiation? And how does it prevent food spoilage?

Food irradiation is the practice of producers to subject their food products to intense exposure to gamma rays, X-rays, or high-energy electrons before shipping them to market. The process of irradiation kills harmful bacteria, including E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus, thereby reducing the risk of consumers getting foodborne illnesses. Irradiation also kills insects and parasites without the use of pesticides. These pesticides are often considered dangerous for consumption because of certain chemicals used to formulate them, which is why most people would rather buy organic food products that don’t have pesticide residue.

Irradiation is regarded as a safer way to kill pathogens and pests in the food compared to pesticides. An added function to irradiation is that it inhibits or slows the spoilage of food, thus allowing the stretch or longevity of the world’s available food supply. In more than twenty countries around the world, 40 different kinds of food products, including fruits, vegetables, spices, grains, fish, beef, pork, and poultry are routinely being irradiated for the safety of consumers.

The most common method for food irradiation involves that use of radioactive cobalt-60 packaged into thin rods that are about 45 centimeters long. These rods are stored in a deep and clear pool of water that is surrounded by thick concrete walls. The water on the pool absorbs gamma rays, thus preventing the cobalt-60 from presenting a danger to the employees working at the factory or plant.

To better explain the process that goes through irradiation, let us look at a step-by-step procedure of how food is irradiated in a factory. First, the metal carriers stuffed with boxes of food are sent to the factory. Then, the carriers slide along an overhead monorail and go to a chamber containing radioactive cobalt-60, which is already stored in a pool of water. A set of hydraulic arms will lift the cobalt out of the pool, and then the boxes will be exposed to the gamma rays. The duration of exposure varies depending on the type of food product. Once the food has been irradiated, the boxes will slide out again on the opposite side to exit the irradiation facility. The treated food is finally loaded onto the trucks that will ship the food either to distributors or directly to restaurants or stores.

The food products treated with radiation would normally bear the green-colored Radura symbol on the box or on a sign on the grocery store. However, cooked or frozen foods that contain irradiated ingredients do not have the Radura label, so it is up to the restaurant serving it to tell you if the ingredients they use are irradiated. It is essential to take note that the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) sometimes change the label from “irradiated” to “treated with cold pasteurization” in an effort to make irradiated food look harmless, mainly due to the common misconception that anything exposed to radiation is dangerous to humans.

Is Irradiated Food Safe to Eat?

When you say to a person that the food you are eating is “irradiated,” some of them would most likely tell you that you should stop eating it because it is dangerous. However, that is clearly not the case, as irradiation is safe and reliable, so long that the correct procedures are performed during the process. Radiation can only become harmful if the object exposed to it is radioactive, and for the irradiated food’s case, it is far from being one. Radioactive is a response of certain objects when they get exposed to radiation, and it involves them being able to emit radiation even after a long period of not coming into contact with anything radioactive. For irradiated foods, there is no way that they can emit radiation, as they don’t have the properties to do so.

So, if ever you see a food product labels with the Radura symbol, you can be sure that it is safe to eat, and it is not radioactive. On the other hand, a food item that has the Radura symbol doesn’t always mean that it is healthy in the sense that it gives you plenty of nutrients, so the one thing that you should worry about instead of being exposed to radiation is your diet.

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