Food irradiation – 4 things you should know before buying your grocery this week

by Helen

Health Canada approves sale of irradiated ground beef, says can reduce bacteria. What is this? Are they thinking of shooting laser into these poor cows?  Yuk! There went my idea of having a juicy Portobello ground beef burger. Have scientists who work for Health Canada collectively loss their minds? That is the only explanation for their approval allowing food producers and processors to irradiate our foods? Totally weirded out by this headline, I clicked on the link and read the article.

It turned out, Health Canada deemed food irradiation as a safe and effective treatment to reduce harmful bacteria in ground beef after they conducted some experiments. As a defense for their decision, Health Canada sited that the US has been permitting the irradiation of ground beef products since 1999.  Yes, just because our neighbours are ok with “nuked” meat, doesn’t mean that we do too? Ah, yes our beef and cattle industry wants Canadians to eat irradiated beefs also.  Canada’s beef cattle industry also has been pestering the Canadian government to approve ground beef irradiation since 1998, and the government finally gave into industry lobbyists.

To my shock and horror, I learned that irradiation has used in Canada to treat potatoes, onions, wheat, flour, spices and some seasonings. Say what? So, I have been digesting irradiated foods for years? What is irradiated foods anyway?

What is food irradiation?

If you read my post on my 10 years food journey, you know that I have a sort of love, hate and obsession relationship with foods and I am very careful about what I put into my body. After all, my physical health is largely depending on what I eat, so I have developed a habit of reading everything concern foods.  In a nutshell, irradiation (also known as cold pasteurizing) is the process of exposing food to a controlled amount of energy called ‘ionizing radiation’. The process is completed by using one of three different types of radiation: X-rays, Gamma rays, or electron beam radiation ionizing. Just so we are clear on this, an eruption of x-ray is comparable to 30 chest x-rays. Jesus! That is not a good image.  Depending on the food, irradiation could be used to:

  1. Kill bacteria that cause illness or food spoilage
  2. Control insect or parasite infestation
  3. Slow down the ripening or sprouting of fresh fruits and vegetables
  4.  To increase shelf life of foods

It sounds a tiny bit scary (truth be told, I was scary out of my wits when I learned that they used x-ray and electron beam radiation on my foods) but the scientist claims that irradiation is safe for human consumption. I dug a bit deeper to understand exactly how the process of food irradiation worked. It is a bit graphic, but stay with me on this.

Imaging that you passing your food through a giant machine that continuously sends out low doses of ionizing radiation (most typically use is gamma rays) and will kill off unwanted organisms. The process is enough though to disrupt the DNA and kill insects and bacteria that can make people ill without heating or cooking the food that passing thru. Much like heating up your food in microwave, the irradiation energy should disappear from the food immediately and the food doesn’t become radioactive. Do you get the visual yet? I don’t use a microwave to heat my foods because I have done research into the long term health implications of using a microwave consistently. Let’s just say that I dropped my microware in the nearest dumpster. I will write an article on this topic. Promise!

Back to irradiation, the scientists claim this is done in the name of food prevention and with good intention. Much like GMO foods, it all started with good intention but as we know, human just can’t help themselves when it comes to messing with nature.

Exactly which foods are most commonly irradiated?

Jesus! I sweated a bucket when I learned about the food irradiation process. I have a well-found fear for all things that sound remotely close to radiation because my dad die of liver cancer then my mother’s sisters (my aunts) were diagnosed and treated for breast cancer. Genetic is my dead trap! I inherit the cancer DNA genes from both mother and father families. You can appreciate my fear of radiation. Though the government agencies (Health Canada and FDA) both emphasize that food irradiation is safe for human consumption, there are a lot of unanswered questions and we will get to those. Now, I am dying to see what types of food that have been irradiated. Here is the list of “nuked” foods.

For Canadians, here is the list of permitted irradiated foods:

  • Potatoes – To slow down sprouting during storage
  • Onions  – To inhibit sprouting during storage
  • Wheat, flour, whole wheat flour  – To control insect infestation in stored food
  • Whole or ground spices and dehydrated seasoning preparations  – To reduce microbial load
  • Fresh raw ground beef  – To reduce microbial load, including pathogens
  • Frozen raw ground beef – To reduce microbial load, including pathogens


For my America neighbours (and shopping playground), the list is a bit longer:

  • Beef and Pork. Cow and pig, you would be the most likely target because you are so popular.
  • Crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab). What? Poor delicious and succulent lobsters and craps. Inhuman treatment of my delicious seafood.
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables. Peach and berries! Good bye, it was good while it lasted.
  • Lettuce and Spinach. My favourite leafy green? These people are heartless.
  • Poultry. Popularity is deadly, chicken!
  • Seeds for Sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts). Seriously?
  • Shell Eggs. Well, if the chicken is targeted so should you.
  • Shellfish – Molluscan (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops). I can’t take this anymore. I can live with meat irradiation but seafood? This is war!
  • Spices and Seasonings. I have nothing left to say!

I am emotionally drained now! Seafood, fruit and leafy spinach, these people are just mean. The bad news doesn’t end here, I have more. There is a long list of foods that are currently being reviewed and approved for irradiation in Canada. The soon-to-be irradiated foods included: mangoes, poultry, shrimp and prawns. Yep, it is very sad news for me because I love mangoes and seafood. I may have to cross them off my list or buy organic from now on. My American neighbours, the FDA also has a long waiting list of foods being reviewed for irradiation approval. The list is growing, people!

 The big question, is it safe?

As I mentioned, Health Canada and FDA both support food irradiation as safe food preventive measure.  These agencies also approved and supported of GMO foods, just a reminder for you. Not surprisingly, many consumer groups have opposing views. A study conducted by Center for Food Safety that shown the food irradiation process can destroy the vitamins and ruin the flavour, odour, appearance and texture of food. Here we go again! It is the tomatoes story all over again. Please see my post on GMO food and prepare to feel really bad for what has been done to tomatoes in the name of increasing food yield. In addition, there was a study conducted by feeding rats the irradiated foods. The study concluded that long term digestion of irradiated carrots could lead to “depressed growth rate”.  To toped it off, I found a study indicated that there was a tendency for lower body weights in both sexes of rats receiving 1.0 and 3.0% irradiated thaumatin (which was a sugar alternative). Wow! Is this the cause of my muffin top? Now I definitely have a bone to pick with irradiated food producers and processors.

Last but not least, the Cancer Prevention Coalition reported 1/3 of studies examining genetic damage caused by irradiated food show substantive genetic damage to cells, human and animal.  Ok, so my paranoias may be well founded. When I was in grade 7, I had a class trip to nuclear power station after learning clean power of nuclear energy.  I was really interested in how they could generate power from the splitting of uranium atom (yes, I am a geek) until the scientists who worked in the power station show us the downside of unsafe nuclear power and the lasting damages to human bodies after the exposure to radiations.  He showed us pictures of Chernobyl and those images stayed with me since 7 grade. Since then, I wholeheartedly support any amount of spending my city needs to maintain the highest safety quality standard for the nuclear power station. You can’t ever be too careful where nuclear is concerned.

And yet, the process of food irradiation is subjecting our foods thru the same radiation exposure process, and we think this is safe? Really? The scientists who work for Health Canada and FDA may test the result of 10lbs on beef consumption and for 1 year period, and the result may be fine. It is safe for human consumption for that quantify and time frame, but what will happen if someone eat 15 lbs? 20lbs? and for 5 years or 10 years? Would it still be safe then?

I have been using various spices in my cooking every day. That’s almost 15 years of cooking for me and 15 years of irradiated spices consumption, how many lbs of spices have I consumed? Am I still safe? There is no definitive answer on these questions and it is the role of our government agencies to do their due diligent and inform the general public of accurate time frame and quantity that safe for consume.

My last point on this subject is longevity. We want to be healthy and live longer. It is well-known that Japanese live longer others. Do you know other countries that are on the top 10 list for life longevities? The other winners of life longevities are: Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao. Japan, Macao, Singapore and Hong Kong are all located in Asia. They all have one thing in common: healthy diet and very little use of food irradiation. As the matter of fact, Japan only allows small percentage of potato to be irradiated and the Japanese kicked up a storm about it. After Fukushima  incident, I would venture that the Japanese wouldn’t likely buy irradiated potatoes ever again.

How can I tell if food is irradiated?

Well, you bet that I will look into how to identify irradiated foods. With all these unanswered questions, I am certain that I won’t risk my health and my chance of getting cancer by digesting irradiated foods. So there is good news. In Canada and US, all foods that contained 10% of irradiated foods must be labeled to inform the consumers.  Below are the symbols that will tell you if the food is irradiated.

Canadian Sign

US sign







So, if you don’t want to consume irradiated foods, be sure not to purchase foods with these labels. Radiation is the most feared word to me because I always associated this word with cancer which I genetically inherit from both of my parent’s DNA.  Also, those Chernobyl images made a lasting impact to my fear of radiation exposure. There is one silver lining; organic produces are not subjected to irradiation because this is a requirement of organic certification. But as I mentioned in my GMO post, organic foods are typically more costly so it is depending on your affordability. But only you would know what is best for you and your family.  For me, I would avoid foods that are irradiated for reason that I mentioned. Truth be told, I don’t even have a microwave.

The other side of the debate

I am a balanced person, so I will also tell you the good stuffs. There is a case to be made for food irradiation. It reduces spoilage, increase shelf life, and kills unwanted bacteria. For certain part of the world, irradiated foods could help feed more people and save lives. Similar to the GMO food argument, the intention for food irradiation is good. The trouble is we, human never know where to stop. A lot of idea started with good intention and ended very badly. There are just too many examples to count.

Lastly, what trouble me the most is I haven’t been able to find any conclusive evidence that food irradiation is safe after all researches that I read. What I found interesting is the main reason for ground beef irradiation is to prevent bacteria that contaminated the meats because the processing plants are generally filthy. Basically, the ground beef may not need to be irradiated if food processing plants follow the regulation and keep clean. But instead of enforcing the laws to ensure the food processors follow the rules, the government agencies decide to “nuke” the foods instead. I like to post a question to you: What would you do after learning about irradiated foods? Would you still purchase them? Would you raise your concerns (if you have any) to your government?

Share your thoughts with me.

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