According to the Centers for Disease Control, 48 million people in the U.S. get sick due to food borne illness each year, with 3,000 people dying and another 128,000 more hospitalized (note this is a 2011 estimate). This statistic is alarming and bears the question: Ccould more be done to prevent it?
The answer is an astounding YES, but unfortunately, some confusion about the science behind it has caused the public to delay action that really could save lives.
The process is food irradiation. The problem is that people confuse irradiation with radioactivity. Radioactivity occurs when the nucleus of the atom (the heaviest part) rearranges itself in some way to be in a more stable configuration. When this rearrangement happens, very energetic forms of radiation are given off, and yes, those forms have the potential to cause harm to humans. Radioactivity occurs naturally; in fact you are currently being struck by the very high energy radiation that I was just talking about from beneath your feet because the earth has naturally occurring radioactive materials in its crust.
However, for man to create radioactivity requires large amounts of power, because bombarding the nucleus with heavy particles is the only way to force radioactivity to happen.
This leads us to food irradiation. Food can be irradiated to kill the vast majority of food borne illnesses and thus relieve us of the worry of getting salmonella and e. coli, among other things. Yet some people fear that irradiated food will be radioactive and therefore be harmful to them. This is not the case.
During the irradiation process, food is passed through some kind of radiation, often either gamma ray radiation or x-ray radiation, to kill or alter pathogens in the food. This radiation is not strong enough to cause radioactivity, and certain packaging has been proven safe to use with this irradiation. Thus the food can already be in its packaging when irradiation occurs.
The places where the irradiation occurs, of course, have safety measures to ensure that both the public and their employees avoid the risk of being exposed to the radiation that is being used on the food.
The question now becomes, should we really be risking our lives by not irradiating our food?
My answer to this question is a definite no; what is yours?