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Irradiation and Food Borne Illness

Center for Food Safety

Using recent food contamination scandals as a springboard, its supporters have touted irradiation as the solution to foodborne illness in everything from spinach to deli meats.  But an investigation into the systemic, root food and agricultural problems that cause these tragic outbreaks has yet to be undertaken by government agencies.

Masks the Unsanitary Condition of Factory Farms
Irradiation is an after-the-fact “solution” that does nothing to address the unsanitary conditions of factory farms, and actually creates a disincentive for producers and handlers to take preventative steps in production in handling.  The longer shelf life created by irradiation (affording longer shipping distances) also provides greater opportunity for post-treatment contamination via shipping, handling, etc.  Additionally, irradiation does not work to stop toxins produced by some bacteria (like botulism); viruses, like foot and mouth disease or hepatitis, are resistant to the irradiation doses used in food; and prions (thought to be the cause of BSE, or Mad Cow Disease) are resistant, as well.

Contributes to Consolidation of the Agriculture Industry and the Globalization of Food
American food processing companies see the use of irradiation as a potential means of boosting profits.  In fact, the motivation for expanding irradiation to additional categories of food may be less about getting rid of disease-causing organisms, and more about increasing market share in international trade.  Irradiation can dramatically increase the shelf life of food.  This gives corporations more flexibility in marketing and transportation, making it easier for large companies to move some operations to countries with lower labor costs and lower sanitary and safety standards.  As in many other “outsourced” industries, American workers, farmers and ranchers could lose their jobs.  In other words, food irradiation supports globalization at its worst, where concerns over long-term health risks carry less weight than the lure of expanded markets.  Additionally, since irradiation has become a tool for the globalization of U.S. food production, food irradiation procedures are modeled for large, centralized operations.  This furthers the consolidation of “Big Ag” companies and contributes to the destruction of small U.S. family farms -- further degrading the security and diversity of our food supply.

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