Food irradiation: Grosser than you think.

food irradiation radura I really didn't know much about food irradiation when I slid into a booth yesterday, ordered an iced tea, and prepared to hear Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter discuss her new book: Zapped: Irradiation and the Death of Food. I knew it involved putting food through something like a giant x-ray machine to kill bacteria, and I knew I didn't want to eat it. That's about it.

Boy, was I in for it.

The quest for food irradiation began after WWII, when it was seen as a way to ensure a food supply for soldiers. Over the years it has received varying levels of support from the government, until the Reagan administration realized it had a little toxic nuclear waste problem. By promoting food irradiation, they could turn that problem into an asset -- the nuclear waste could be used in the irradiation process. Sounds tasty, right?

It gets even yuckier. Irradiated food may last longer than other food, but it also loses vitamins faster. That irradiated mango might still look fresh, but you're only getting a fraction of the nutritional value. Plus, when it comes to meat, irradiation can be used to justify abhorrent factory conditions.Cows coming in from the CAFO covered in dung? No problem! We'll just zap the meat! Of course, when they do zap the meat, it looks brownish-green and smells and tastes like burnt hair. Irradiation also adds processing time, travel, and cost, and in animal tests it's been linked with cancer, stillbirths, genetic mutations and premature death.

So what you get with irradiation is weird-looking, off-tasting food, with fewer nutrients and a larger environmental impact, that costs significantly more than fresh food. Oh, and it might kill you. What a deal!

Although several products are approved for irradiation in the United States, commercial irradiation has never really taken hold (and very few irradiated products are on supermarket shelves today). Consumers are skeptical, and required labeling (with that symbol up at the top there) means that we've consistently avoided irradiated options. Unfortunately, the E. coli outbreaks from California spinach have renewed government and industry interest in irradiation -- apparently it's easier than asking producers to clean up their acts -- and the FDA is also considering allowing irradiation for processed foods, which make up the bulk of many American's diets.

Unfortunately, they're also considering weakening the labeling requirements for irradiated food. Some processed foods would only be labeled 'pasteurized,' and other irradiated foods wouldn't have to be labeled at all. Clearly FDA thinks we're too dull to make our own decisions about irradiated food, so they've got to slip it in under the radar. Thanks, FDA.

For more info on food irradiation and what you can do to keep it clearly labeled, visit

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