Investigation into applications of radioactivity began at the end of the 19th century. Patents for ionizing radiation to kill bacteria in foods were granted in the US and UK in the 1st decade of the 20th century.
Interest in irradiating foods spiked immediately after World War 2, when researchers found that meat and other foods could be sterilized by high-energy ionization. The process was viewed favorably as a way to preserve food for military troops in the field.
To establish the safety and effectiveness of irradiation, the US Army experimented in the 1950s. At the behest of the army, the FDA approved in 1963 the irradiated bacon that became a staple of the military diet.
Then it came to light that lab animals fed irradiated food suffered numerous health problems and early death. In 1968, the FDA rescinded the army’s permission to serve irradiated bacon to its personnel. Nonetheless, on the heels of funding and promotion by the federal government at the behest of the food industry, irradiation become largely accepted by the mid-1980s. The FDA gave permission to irradiate the US food supply in 1986.
Irradiated food in the US is supposed to be signified by the symbol shown, but the labeling is often remiss.
Today, globalized food producers widely use irradiation on fruits and vegetables because it increases shelf life. Most meat products are irradiated as a sanitation shortcut.
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Radiation is one of the more destructive forces in Nature. Doses powerful enough to kill living organisms are also powerful enough to fundamentally alter the food itself. ~ Wenonah Hauter
Irradiation damages food by tearing molecules asunder and creating free radicals. The ionization and free radicals kill some bacteria, but they also damage vitamins and enzymes in the food, and combine with existing chemicals, particularly pesticides, to form new compounds, some of which are known toxins.
Even the earliest experiments on food irradiation showed an inherent loss of nutritional value, especially vitamins. Irradiation damages the natural digestive enzymes found in raw foods, which means the body’s gut flora have to work harder to digest them, furthering nutritional loss.
The longest study on the long-term health effects of irradiated foods has been 15 weeks. The FDA based its approval of irradiation on short-term small-scale tests coupled to theoretical calculations.
No studies have been done on the most vulnerable segment of the population: children. As aforementioned, studies on other mammals show ill effects.
Most importantly, the effectiveness of irradiation is problematic. Because irradiation fails to deliver a lethal dose to all the microbes in food, whatever pathogens survive are all hardier for the experience. Hence, irradiation may actually engender what it aims to eliminate.