Increased Irradiation of Meat in the United States
The United States food industry is taking a proactive step toward reducing contamination of the meat supply by irradiating more meat this year, according to a spokesperson from the American Meat Institute. Last year, less than 5% of all beef was irradiated, but experts in the field anticipate that a significantly higher proportion of beef and other types of meat will undergo irradiation before being shipped to grocers around the country.
The push to have more meat irradiated falls on the heels of record amounts of tainted food last year that caused thousands of infections and several deaths. Radiation kills organisms that can grow in food, such as insects, bacteria, and mold and does not appear to change the texture or taste of the food. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) states that 60% of United States meat plants fail to meet federal food safety standards for preventing contamination with E. coli. Last year, the largest meat recall in United States history recalled more than 27 million pounds of poultry due to contamination with Listeria, a type of bacteria that made more than 40 people sick and killed eight. The food industry hopes that by irradiating meat, the risk of food contamination and poisoning will substantially decrease. Despite its potential benefits, irradiation is not a substitute for proper food handling at home.
Some critics feel that irradiation of meat is used by meat packing plants to cover up sloppy food handling processes, such as not cleaning the meat thoroughly, improper storage, or cross-contamination of meat products by employees failing to wash their hands. Following strict hygiene guidelines in meat processing should eliminate the risk of meat becoming contaminated and, therefore, the need to irradiate food. The long-term effects of irradiated meat are also a concern, particularly since some of these treated meat products are served as part of school lunch programs. Parents are concerned over using children as “guinea pigs” with irradiated meat. Some people believe irradiated food products contain chemical by-products that may be potentially harmful or nutritionally deficient.
Proponents of food irradiation note that the process is not new to the United States. Wheat and common spices have been irradiated for several decades, with no reported adverse health effects.
A potential problem of irradiating meat is that certain vitamins and other nutrients may be depleted. A recent study published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry showed significant decreases in vitamin C content (in black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, oregano, and sage) and in the levels of carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin (in cinnamon, oregano, parsley, rosemary, cayenne pepper, and sage), after irradiation. However, the amount of irradiation used for spices is substantially more than that used on meat products. It is unknown whether irradiation diminishes the nutritional content of meat following irradiation or if it leads to any long-term health consequences.
Darin Ingels, ND, MT (ASCP), received his bachelor’s degree from Purdue University and his Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Kenmore, WA. Dr. Ingels is the author of The Natural Pharmacist: Lowering Cholesterol (Prima, 1999) and Natural Treatments for High Cholesterol (Prima, 2000). He currently is in private practice at New England Family Health Associates located in Southport, CT, where he specializes in environmental medicine and allergies. Dr. Ingels is a regular contributor to Healthnotes and Healthnotes Newswire.
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