What is irradiation? Why do it to food?

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Irradiation is exposing something to radiation.  It’s sometimes used as a preservative method for certain foods to sterilize them, prevent agricultural parasites (insects, spores, etc), inhibit growth (ripening/sprouting) post harvest, etc.

The first patents for irradiating food were actually issued in 1905 & the US government started the National Food Irradiation Program to start researching it in 1953.  You can read more about the history of food irradiation in the US on the EPA’s website.

Use of irradiation in foods is regulated by the FDA (it’s considered a food additive), with guidelines for specific commodities amended by the USDA.

Packaged irradiated foods are generally required to be identified as such on their outer packaging so consumers are informed.  Sometimes alternate sources are available on the market allowing consumers to get the same food while avoiding the process.

In other cases government mandates are in place that require irradiation of certain products.  For example, Szechuan peppercorns must (by law) be irradiated before import to protect American agriculture from organisms they can carry, and the Australian government mandates that all kangaroo meat be irradiated as part of processing.

Sources & Further Reading:
“Food Irradiation” at EPA.gov
“Food Irradiation” at Wikipedia.org

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