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Irradiated food: It works, but few are buying

   Irradiated food comes with this label
November 25, 1997
Web posted at: 4:37 p.m. EST (2137 GMT)

From Correspondent Eugenia Halsey

MULBERRY, Florida (CNN) -- Since the 1960s, NASA has been making astronauts' food safer by irradiating it. But for many people, irradiation -- bombarding food with gamma rays from radioactive cobalt-60 to kill food contaminants -- still evokes images of food that glows in the dark.

At Food Technology Service Inc., an irradiation plant near Tampa, Florida, the process starts when pallets of food, already in its final packaging, are put inside tall metal containers that are moved to an irradiation chamber surrounded by 6-foot-thick concrete walls.

CNN's Eugenia Halsey takes a tour of an irradiation plant
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QuickTime Slide show

The containers are then exposed to the racks of bluish-looking cobalt-60, which stay in a protective pool of water when not in use. In the process, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes, the gamma radiation passes through the food, killing harmful bacteria and slowing decay but not leaving the food radioactive.

   The fruit is loaded into large metal containers before being irradiated

It's "no more than your teeth would be radioactive by the dentist X-raying them," says Food Technology Service's Pete Ellis.

The process causes a vitamin loss but most scientists say it is insignificant and there is no evidence that chemical changes caused by irradiation can cause cancer. Ellis says the changes are no different than what happens when food is canned or cooked.

But some consumer groups are not enthusiastic about irradiation, arguing it takes the emphasis away from cleaning up the food supply.

   Finding irradiated food in grocery stores can be difficult

"It's saying, don't worry about how clean the packing house is or the slaughterhouse, kill the germs, but maybe leave the fecal matter on the food. That's not what Americans want," says Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Don't look too hard for irradiated items in your grocery store. Although every major scientific organization says the process is safe, most companies are afraid to sell irradiated food until consumers demonstrate they're ready for it.


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