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Food Irradiation: A Catalyst for More Health Risks

  • Food Irradiation: A Catalyst for More Health Risks to Canadians
    By Bradley Dyck
    March 1, 2011

Food irradiation is one of the most controversial food processing methods to ever affect the average Canadian's diet. Health Canada currently permits irradiated potatoes, onions, wheat, spices and dehydrated seasonings to be sold in Canada. Additionally, Health Canada has been proposing to amend current regulations to include irradiated poultry, ground beef and some seafood (2002). The process of exposing food to radiation to reduce food-borne illnesses is deemed by some as a miracle solution to a major health concern related to Canada's food supply. However, many opponents are wary of the never before seen chemical alterations and nutritional deficiencies found in irradiated food. Furthermore, the lack of long-term research to prove the safety of irradiated food is highly disconcerting. This essay will address the aforementioned concerns with food irradiation while providing alternative solutions, such as the organic method, which are better suited for dealing with concerns about the current state of Canadian food integrity. The health risks of food irradiation far outweigh the intended benefits; many alternatives exist that will effectively combat the urgent issue of rising food poisoning rates without gambling with the long-term health of Canadians.

The Centre for Disease Control reports food-borne diseases account for 76 million cases of illness and approximately 5000 deaths in the US annually (1999). Food poisoning cases are a major health threat to North Americans and the rate of illnesses caused by pathogens such as Salmonella, E. Coli and Listeria are continuing to rise (Food Safety News, 2010). In the last 20 years, there has been a sixfold increase in the number of food poisoning cases in industrialized countries (Nicholson et al., 2000). Clearly, the safety of Canadian food is deteriorating. The widespread oral administration of antibiotics to livestock is used to counter this problem. However, the problem of proliferating pathogens has only been compounded. The widespread use of antibiotic-laced feed has created antibiotic-resistant bacteria which are now found not only in livestock but also in meats sold to consumers (Threlfall et al., 2000). Food irradiation takes a reactive approach to this problem by "reducing the level of harmful bacteria such as E.coli [and] Salmonella" (Health Canada, 2002) through the exposure of food to a radioactive source to kill said pathogens. However, food irradiation does nothing to prevent the propagation of dangerous bacteria in livestock and food (Sibbald, 2003). In contrast, a Dutch study proves the organic method of farming yields poultry meat that is three to four times less likely to contain Salmonella - even without the use of antibiotics (van der Zee et al., 2004).

Irradiated food is depleted of many nutrients and vitamins humans rely on to survive. The nutritional integrity of irradiated food was once merely questionable, but it is now widely accepted as inferior to non-irradiated food. A study by Diehl, Hasselmann & Kilcast states the most vulnerable vitamins to irradiation are -carotene (provitamin A) and α-tocopherol (vitamin E). When exposed to under 10 kilograys of ionizing radiation (the standard Canadian dosage), irradiated Manitoban wheat lost 18% more of its vitamin E content over just one day, as compared to the non irradiated variety. Oats, after being irradiated and stored for 6 months, had a 44% decrease in vitamin E as compared to the traditional variety. Irradiated potatoes after being stored for 6 months lost 50% more of their vitamin A content. Irradiated beef liver and powdered egg lost 22% and 18% of their vitamin A content over a 4-week period respectively (Diehl et al., 1991). Food irradiation proponents point to the fact that vitamin A and E can be routinely consumed in much higher concentrations in commonly non irradiated food, such as fortified dairy and plant fats, but this does little to assist those who may have specific allergies or geographical constraints to said foods.  Clearly, the vitamin losses found in irradiated grains, vegetables and meats are significant and should not be overlooked.

Conversely, organic produce is spared the nutrient-depleting process of irradiation. Organic produce is also proven to contain higher levels of vitamins and may also contain less bacterial contaminants as compared to conventional produce. Organic apples, pears, potatoes and corn contain on average more than double the amount of calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, zinc and selenium than their conventionally grown counterparts (Smith, 1993). Two recent peer-reviewed articles state that little research has been conducted to determine if raw organic produce is less likely to contain potentially harmful bacteria. Both studies, however, indicate that manure is the foremost cause of harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E.coli contaminating produce (Bourn & Prescott, 2002; Lima & Vianello, 2010). The Government of Canada states that organic farms use alternative food safety measures like manure sourced from organic farms, crop rotation and an outright ban on the use of "sewage sludge," which is unlike conventional farms (2008). By extension, these alternative safety measures would likely reduce the amount of food-borne pathogens found in crops. The nutritional integrity of fresh produce that Canadians enjoy today shouldn't be put in jeopardy by food irradiation when the viable alternative of organic farming exists.

There is a wide range of unique chemical changes that result when food is irradiated. These compounds are truly unique because they are never formed during other food processing techniques such as cooking and freezing. To illustrate, an article by George Tritsch, who has over 36 years of expertise in the field of cancer research at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, states that 30 mg of sucrose (table sugar) when irradiated will create 0.05 mg of formaldehyde, which is a carcinogen (2002). Tritsch also states that 0.05 mg of formaldehyde is "clearly a mutagenic dose"(p. 757). Moreover, the formation of alkylcyclobutanones in irradiated food is admitted by Health Canada (Health Canada, 2002). The toxicity of alkylcyclobutanone consumption is disputed and there is conflicting data. Some studies indicate alkylcyclobutanones are genotoxic, will cause DNA damage and promote the growth of cancer cells, whereas other studies do not prove any adverse effects (Gadgil & Smith, 2006). Donald Louria, Medical Doctor, Professor and Chairman Emeritus at New Jersey Medical School, brings forward three studies, each of which confirm that consuming irradiated food causes chromosomal breakage in humans (2001). Neurological damage, immunodeficiency, mental retardation and microcephaly are caused by chromosomal breakage (Carney, 1999). The three studies upon which Louria relies are relatively small, which only serves to prove much more extensive research must be done before the proliferation of irradiated food is encouraged. To administer food that has potential to cause chromosomal breakage to vast populations of people would be reckless and unwise. Accounting for the formation of formaldehyde and alkylcyclobutanones, as well as the likelihood of chromosomal breakage, it is clear that the unique chemical differences present in irradiated food are cause for much concern to Canadians.

The safety and nutritional vitality of the Canadian food supply is no doubt in crisis. Food irradiation is an attempt at combating the problem of food-borne illness, but its proponents neglect to fully account for the health externalities caused by this process. It is a reactive form of ensuring the health of Canadians; it does nothing to prevent the many problems of the industrialized method of conventional farming. It attempts to reverse the problems of food produced by a flawed system as opposed to preventing the problems altogether. Furthermore, irradiation is proven to deplete the nutritional character of food and creates unique chemical poisons in food that pose great long-term health risks to consumers. The organic method is proven to prevent problems such as antibiotic-resistant bacteria and food-borne pathogens while providing nutritionally superior food. To irradiate food is to only further disconnect today's consumers from the natural benefits of the unadulterated food that human ancestry has thrived upon. The summative health risks presented by food irradiation are far too great; the organic alternative is Canada's ideal path to a safer and more nutritious food supply.


Bokkers, E. A. M., & de Boer, I. J. M. (2009, November 10). Economic, ecological, and social performance of conventional and organic broiler production in the Netherlands. British Poultry Science, 50(5), 546-547.

Bourn, D., Prescott, J. (2002, January). A comparison of the nutritional value, sensory qualities, and food safety of organically and conventionally produced foods. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 42,(1), 1-34.

Carney, J.P. (1999, August). Chromosomal breakage syndromes. Current Opinion in Immunology, 11(4), 443-447.

Diehl, J.F., Hasselmann, C., Kilcast, D. (1991, October). Regulation of food irradiation in the European Community: Is nutrition an issue? Food Control, 2(4), 212-219.

Flynn, D., (2010, December 15). 2010 meat & poultry recalls: Over 27 million lbs. Food Safety News.

Gadgil, P., & J.S., Smith. (2004, December). Mutagenicity and acute toxicity evaluation of 2-dodecylcyclobutanone. Journal of Food Science, 69(9), C713-C716.

Gauthier, E. (2009, December 29). Social representations of risk in the food irradiation debate in Canada. Science Communication, 32(3), 295-329.

Government of Canada. (2008, October). Organic Production Systems: General Principals and Management Standards. Canadian General Standards Board. CAN/CGSB‐32.310‐2006.

Health Canada. (2002). Evaluation of the significance of 2-dodecylcyclobutanone and other alkylcyclobutanones. Retrieved from

Health Canada. (2002). Frequently asked questions: Are there currently any irradiated foods     on the market in Canada? Retrieved from

Health Canada. (2002). Frequently asked questions: Why irradiate food and how does food irradiation work? Retrieved from

Lima, P.P., Vianello, F. (2010, August 17). Review on the main differences between organic and conventional plant-based foods. International Journal of Food Science & Technology, 46, 1-33.

Louria, D. (2001, August 1). Food irradiation: Unresolved issues. Clinical Infectious Diseases, 33(3), 379-380.

Mead, S. M., Slutsker, L., Dietz, V., McCaig, L.F., Bresee, S.J., Shapiro, C., Griffin, P.M., Tauxe, R.V. (1999, September). Food-related illness and death in the United States. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5(5), 607-625.      Note: The above study was published exclusively for the Centre for Disease Control and is referred in-text as "Centre for Disease Control."

Nicholson, F.A., Hutchison, M.L., Smith, K.A., Keevil, C.W., Chambers, B.J. and Moore, A. (2000). A Study on Farm Manure Applications to Agricultural Land and an Assessment of the Risks of Pathogen Transfer into the Food Chain. A report to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. London.

Sibbald, B. (2003, March 4). Health Canada's food irradiation proposal sets of debate. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 168(5), 603.

Smith, B.L. (1993). Organic foods vs. supermarket foods: Element levels. Journal of Applied Nutrition, 45, 35-39.

Threlfall, E.J., Ward, L.R., Frost, A.J., Willshaw, G.A. (2000, December 5). The emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance in food-borne bacteria. International Journal of Food Microbiology, 62(2), 1-5.

Tritsch, G. (2002, September 18). Food irradiation: Not a risk worth taking. Nutrition, 18(9), 756-758.

van der Zee, H., Wit, B. and Vollema, A.R. (2004) Survey pathogenen en bacteriële resistentie in kipproducten uit biologische teelt. Voedselen Waren Autoriteit/Keuringdienst van Waren Oost, p. 10.

Note: This Dutch study was referenced in English by Bokkers & de Boer (also     referenced).

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