Of all the ways to prevent food spoilage and foodborne illness, gamma irradiation may be the most unappetizing. Although gamma irradiation is a proven method of eliminating potentially harmful microbes from food, the public has yet to buy in. Most of their concerns, however, stem from misinformation and a poor understanding of the basic principles of radiation.
The most common method of irradiation is to expose food to cobalt-60 or cesium-137 by passing it through a radiation chamber on a conveyor belt. The food does not directly contact the radioactive material and does not become radioactive itself. Thus, there is no risk for exposure to radioactive material through eating gammairradiated foods. Additionally, irradiated foods are not significantly altered in terms of nutritional quality, aside from the loss of certain vitamins, which is also exacerbated by extended storage. Alterations in taste or smell may occur in irradiated foods with high fat content, such as fatty meats and dairy products, but this effect can be minimized by using lower doses of radiation at colder temperatures.
In the United States, the CDC, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have deemed irradiation safe and effective for various types of meats, poultry, shellfish, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs with shells, and spices and seasonings. Gamma irradiation of foods has also been approved for use in many other countries, including France, the Netherlands, Portugal, Israel, Russia, China, Thailand, Belgium, Australia, and South Africa. To help ameliorate consumer concern and assist with education efforts, irradiated foods are now clearly labeled and marked with the international irradiation symbol, called the “radura”. Consumer acceptance seems to be rising, as indicated by several recent studies.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology