Sep. 24, 1997 ROLLA, MO. -- Here's food for thought: Irradiation of meats, fruits and vegetables will keep them fresh longer and ward off the threat of E. coli and other harmful bacteria, a University of Missouri-Rolla researcher says.
Many kinds of foods don't stay fresh-looking for very long after they have been brought home from the supermarket, and some of those foods can even make you sick. "Millions of people get sick every year due to food contamination, and some die as a result," says Dr. Gary E. Mueller, an associate professor of nuclear engineering at UMR.
According to some scientific sources, about 30 million people in the United States alone get food poisoning each year, and about 7,000 of those people die.
The most recent food poisoning scare was the recalling of hamburger meat contaminated with the E. coli bacteria, Mueller says.
"Cooking that contaminated hamburger properly would have killed the E.coli bacteria," Mueller says, but a safer and better approach to keeping foods free of contaminants is irradiation.
Irradiation -- a practice approved in many countries including the United States -- keeps meats, fresh fruits and vegetables fresher and contamination-free for months instead of just days, says Mueller.
"A giant step toward a solution to the problem is to irradiate the food in the processing before it is shipped to the market," he says.
"First, the shelf life of the food can be extended because irradiation kills spoilage organisms and slows down the natural ripening processes," Mueller says. "Secondly, the process reduces food-borne illnesses by reducing or eliminating pathogens, such as E. coli. And thirdly, the process is safe, cost effective, highly successful, and government-regulated by those countries now using the method."
The food irradiation process consists of taking foods such as potatoes, spices, fresh fruits, red meats, dried vegetables, fish and poultry and irradiating it with gamma rays from a radioactive source.
Some food shoppers are wary of buying and eating what they think might be radioactive. "One of the misconceptions is that when you irradiate foods they become radioactive, but that is not the case," Mueller says.
Another concern is that irradiation of food will ruin its taste and nutritional value. But extensive research by the World Health Organization, the Joint Expert Committee of the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency has shown that below a certain radiation dosage, foods are not affected and the taste and nutritional value is not changed, Mueller says.
"The Food and Drug Administration in the United States has approved the radiation of foods since the 1960s but the practice is not yet used in large degrees," Mueller says. "Canada has been using the method for 40 years and 40 other countries now irradiate over 50 food commodities."
Just how long can food last after being irradiated? Mueller says that pork loins that have been irradiated and stored at refrigeration temperatures takes about 90 days to spoil as compared to 40 days for that of treated pork. "And the life expectancy of fresh fruits can be increased from a week to a month. Strawberries, for instance, can be extended from a few days up to four weeks," he says.
But are people willing to buy irradiated foods? Mueller believes that they are.
"Hawaii shipped processed papayas to California but before shipment some of the papayas were given a hot water treatment, which killed the bacteria and fruit flies," he says. The other papayas were irradiated, which also killed bacteria and fruit flies. "After those papayas were stocked in California markets consumers bought 10 irradiated papayas for every 11 sold," Mueller says.
"The process is safe and it works and people are convinced of that," Mueller says. "Now we have to convince the food industry. And the United States has to embrace this technology that other countries are now successfully using."
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