In the wake of Europe's recent E. coli outbreak, in which sprouts contaminated with a particularly vicious strain killed 36 people and sickened thousands, food safety officials are asking once again what more can be done to curb the spread of food-borne illnesses.
Food-borne infections in the U.S. have declined 20% over the last 10 years, thanks to tighter regulations and steps taken by the food and agricultural industries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they still cause more than 48 million cases of illness and about 3,000 deaths each year.
Some experts say part of the solution lies with food irradiation - an effective, underused method of prevention that's been around for more than 100 years.
Food irradiation involves treating items with low-dose X-rays, electron beams or gamma rays. The high-energy particles in the rays and beams kill disease-causing pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella by damaging their genetic material. The particles also break up water molecules in the food, releasing free radicals that can kill bacteria and parasites.
No radioactive materials end up in the food itself, even though in the case of gamma rays the source is radioactive cobalt, said food irradiation expert Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis. Electron-beam and X-ray irradiation involve no radioactive elements, Bruhn added.