Why is food irradiated with radiation and how dangerous is it

“Madness” is the only word that occurs to me when I enter a cell surrounded by two-meter-thick reinforced concrete walls and a 64-ton steel door that rides on special rails. On the floor of the all-metal chamber, blue-violet streaks of light flicker.

Cherin Belt reassures me: “There is no reason to worry, it’s completely safe here. Water serves as a screen. ” But, looking at the radioactive isotopes, I can not help thinking - does the slight tingling in my groin reflect the fact that the cells of my prostate have already begun to mutate violently? “Feeling the ozone?” Continues Cherin. I digress from the discomfort and feel something fresh, suspiciously like the smell of the ocean. “This is the result of the conversion of oxygen to ozone in water.” We are located in an irradiation chamber, in an institution called High Energy Processing (Hepro), near Cape Town. The radiation source is cobalt-60 pencils, which are covered with two layers of stainless steel. They can radiate 100 million times stronger than a medical x-ray unit.


Cobalt irradiator with pool

If this scares you, then in vain. The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared food processed in this way completely safe. And although the WHO has not set a limit on exposure, food is never exposed to radiation doses of more than a million rads. For comparison: the average dose of radiation from natural sources is 0.1 rad. When the door is closed behind us, rods will appear from under the water. A special pinwheel will “screw” them into medicines and food prepared for irradiation. Of course, everything is controlled remotely.


Hepro is like a medium-sized industrial warehouse, but inside one of the three nationals is “irradiated”. “Colleagues” are located in Durban (Gamwave) and in Kempton Park (Isotron). Every year, more and more food is irradiated. But companies hope to handle in this way not only food and medicine, but much more. Food in South Africa has been irradiated for many decades, and the republic remains one of the leaders in this area. Every year, 12 thousand tons of food are irradiated, 90% of them are spices. Following them are imported honey and garlic. They are irradiated according to the instructions of the Ministry of Agriculture in order to avoid import of diseases.

At the exit from the chamber, we are met by a nuclear physicist, Dr. Roco Bason, president of Hepro. “Irradiated food is completely safe. Even WHO and the UN recognize it as such. In many parts of Africa where there are no refrigerators, it is vital to increase the shelf life of products. This reduces the risk of poisoning and improves the overall health situation, ”says Bason. Each year, Hepro also irradiates 22 million wine corks to prevent their decomposition. “This is the most effective way to sterilize medical products and equipment, ” Bason adds.


The scheme of the irradiator irradiating with gamma radiation

Radiation is a very general term. Behind him lies many different sources of energy. At the bottom of the spectrum are emissions from power lines and computers. Upstairs are radio waves and microwaves. There are infrared, visible and ultraviolet rays, and then x case (x-ray) and gamma rays from radioactive materials. When materials are exposed to radiation, energy is transferred. A simple example is tanning. At some point, the energy transmitted by radiation becomes enough to knock electrons out of the atoms of the bombarded material. This can disrupt the molecular structure of the material, leaving positively and negatively charged ions and free radicals. Starting from this level, radiation is called ionizing. Chemically, ions are extremely active, they are looking for something to recombine from the surrounding materials. Such their behavior can cause changes in living beings and the materials at whose expense these ions exist. Some effects of food exposure may be desirable. But exposure of living things (especially humans) is almost always fatal.


The first thing people ask is whether food becomes radioactive after exposure or not. Bason argues that no, as a result of the methodology used by Hepro, food cannot become radioactive in any way. But the harsh truth is that food can become radioactive if the radiation source is damaged. “At Hepro, this is completely impossible. Radioactive material never touches food. There are about 200 food exposure centers around the world like this, and there have been only 4 deaths in all time. We think this is a great indicator of reliability, ”Bason continues on the threshold of the cell, where another portion of food is irradiated. A report from the South African Ministry of Health shows that until the early 1990s, the following foods were irradiated: bananas, beef, soups, cured meats, egg white concentrate, dried vegetables, dried figs, egg powder, fish, frozen egg pulp, fruit juices, garlic, honey products, jelly, nuts, onions, paprika, potatoes, chips and much more.


During my first visit to Hepro several years ago, I was struck by shelving with bags of various products and a string of trucks with emblems of luxury shops. Since then, everything has changed. Fresh fruits no longer irradiate - the order of the Ministry of Health. There are many reasons for this - first of all, practicality. It makes little sense to irradiate fresh foods. But while physicists are unanimous in assessing the technology as completely safe, many sellers continue to distrust this, fearing that buyers will avoid such products. And the end user generally knows almost nothing about food exposure.

The majority, buying food at the supermarket, have no idea how their food got there and what happened to it along the way. For example, are you aware that bananas are usually cut, transported and stored in green, and they are treated with ethylene in special chambers (and not just bananas) before they are sold? Or what to prevent the onion and potatoes from sprouting, they are treated with a chemical whose name does not fit on one line? Or that mango ripening is also often artificially accelerated? Maybe the consumer should know more about these technologies? Yes, almost all products are somehow processed! In most countries, the law does not require that the label describe how this food product was processed, so that all this remains behind the scenes.


In 1972, a law was passed in South Africa that prescribes that this fact should be reflected on the labels of products, more than 10% of the mass of which was irradiated. The same applies to vegetables, fruits and fish. Now ask yourself - have you ever, at least once, seen something written on the label about the radiation processing of a given food product? I’ve been looking for many years, but I found literally a few units of labels, where there would be a radiation symbol or the word “irradiated”.

Large merchants will tell you that they have no irradiated food other than spices, and that their wholesalers take care of it. But one cannot be sure: laboratory tests for the degree of exposure are an expensive and complicated procedure, and it is not easy to come to a consensus on the results of such an examination. The only more or less reliable way to “catch” irradiated food is to search for “markers” that are specially left in it. They persist for decades.

In South Africa, it is not the Ministry of Health that controls the irradiation processing of food, but the local authorities. It’s easier and cheaper. Yes, and local authorities are being watched by public controllers. To get the right to irradiate food, you need to go through a series of checks, and then the control is very tight. So there’s nothing to worry about. Bon Appetit!

The article was published in the journal Popular Mechanics (No. 3, March 2003).


Why is the glass clear?
Is a warp engine possible?
Flying over water: a century of hydrofoil ships