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Is Food Irradiation Dangerous?

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If you ever happen to be in Vegas and are sick of drinking, gambling, lounging by the pool, and spending your paycheck seeing a clearly toupee'd performer from the '70s/'80s singing "tonally different" renditions of their greatest hits, well, you should probably leave. But if you can't, you should carve out an afternoon to check out the National Atomic Testing Museum. Affiliated with the Smithsonian, the massive archive takes visitors through the history of nuclear testing, from the detonation of the first bomb in 1945 to the present. It's really amazing.

One of the best exhibits is devoted to the designs and products developed during the "Atomic Age." This was the period in the 1950s and '60s when the promise of nuclear energy had people envisioning futures where cars would run for free and electricity would be "too cheap to meter." Of course, something happened along the way to dim that enthusiasm. Power plant meltdowns and the Cold War made everyone rethink splitting the atom, and nuclear-themed breakfast cereals were quickly replaced by "duck and cover" drills at school.

But by getting rid of the positive aspects of nuclear technology, we may have gotten rid of a treatment that would end food poisoning: Food irradiation.

Food irradiation is, basically, washing food with radiation. The process works as follows: A package of food is placed inside a shielded chamber, blasted with a whole bunch of radiant energy that breaks apart the chemical bonds of harmful bacteria and parasites, and then retrieved. (The same process is used to sterilize things like medical equipment.) According to the FDA, the food that comes out of the chamber still retains its original nutrients and, most importantly, is not in the least bit radioactive. In other words, it's safer to eat than before.

And yet, despite the positive effects, the process is not utilized as much as it could be. Why's that? According to The Washington Post, a lot of that has to do with a failure to educate.

While the government responded to fears related to water fluoridation and immunizations by actually speaking up and trying to persuade the public, they've stayed relatively mum on the issue of food irradiation and nuclear power in general. And so, despite the fact there hasn't been a significant nuclear disaster in the U.S. since Three Mile Island in 1979, the stigma of nuclear energy still present from the Cold War is allowed to dominate the public consciousness. Mention food irradiation, and you start thinking unwanted mutations and cheeseburgers that glow.

However, that mentality contradicts the reality that most of us are irradiating food just about every day:

"Those naysayers better throw out their microwaves, because that is irradiation," [Frank] Benso said, standing in his 50,000-square-foot irradiation facility.

But if the FDA says it's okay, and countries all over the world utilize it, why are some people still so hesitant? For one, plenty don't quite trust all of the tests.

Whole Foods, for instance, is not a big fan of irradiation, saying the process turns produce into unpalatable mush and introduces untested "unique radiolytic products" into the mix. (Idaho State University retorts that the URPs have been tested and aren't the least bit harmful.) The lack of "long-term testing" is also an argument used to oppose irradiation. However, this seems to call into question the entire scientific method, as other processes have been approved with far fewer years of testing.

Another concern is how the universality of food irradiation would change the food manufacturing industry. "If companies can irradiate their foods at the end of the line," goes the argument, "then why would they worry about warehouse sanitation at all?" Which is a valid worry, seeing as irradiation does not kill all bacteria. Making sure that companies know irradiation is not a safety net to fix all contamination issues that happen on the factory floor is important.

But perhaps the biggest worry surrounding irradiated food is, once again, an issue of labeling:

Irradiated ingredients end up in processed foods that fill refrigerated and frozen-food cases in grocery stores throughout the United States. None of those products have to carry a special label. So irradiated shrimp would have to bear the Radura logo if packaged on its own, but not as an ingredient in tortellini or gumbo, for example.

This is where the debate over the process pivots from one about its validity to one about "the right to know."

Just like the argument regarding GMOs, if one is for labeling then people assume it also means they're against GMOs. This isn't necessarily the case. Wanting a sufficient label in place to allow consumers to make their own informed decisions does not make one "anti-science." If anything, it makes them democratic. (A big part of democracy is being informed about what is being voted on.)

The lack of a proper label on irradiated foods -- or GMOs, for that matter -- makes the process scarier. It introduces a bogeyman by making it look as though the corporations behind the technology are hiding something. But if adequate labeling is developed, maybe it'll inform us that there's nothing scary hiding under our beds.

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