Irradiated food keeps astronauts healthy and productive. Why can’t we earth dwellers have it?

December 19, 2012
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Canada’s most famous son, astronaut Chris Hadfield, just blasted off to the International Space Station. He and his two fellow travelers will fly up to the ISS, where he will stay for the next five months—taking command, the first Canadian to do so, in March—and basically do science and medical experiments. In space, no one will come and fetch you to a hospital if you catch a foodborne disease. So Hadfield his colleagues, if they want to enjoy a steak while whizzing around the planet at 29,000 kilometers an hour, will eat irradiated food. That will minimize the chance of him and his colleagues catching a foodborne disease in the first place.

The Radura, the international symbol for irradiated food. Food labeled with the Radura means that the food has been briefly treated with radiation, usually gamma rays. Food with this label is safer than food without it. That is because the brief gamma treatment kills dangerous foodborne pathogens like E. coli and salmonella so that they cannot kill us. It does not damage the food.

Here on the patch of the planet called Canada, we don’t take the kinds of precautions that astronauts and cosmonauts do. That’s a bit mystifying, considering we possess, in fact we played a large part in inventing, the very irradiation technology that can make our beef much safer. I’m talking about gamma irradiation of food, of course. Canada is a world leader in  manufacturing the machines that safely send out beams of gamma rays. Nordion, a company that used to be part of Atomic Energy Canada Limited (AECL), is a hugely successful maker of these machines.

The consequences to our not employing this proven gamma-ray technology are stark. Canada last week experienced yet another beef recall, involving frozen beef burgers. Cases of E. coli bacteria contamination were related to the recalled products. This of course followed the huge beef recall in September, involving Alberta’s Excel Foods.

I said at the time that Canada’s food industry needs to get its act together and introduce gamma irradiation to beef processing; this will dramatically cut back if not eliminate dangerous pathogens in the food we put on our tables. How many more food recalls do there have to be before gamma irradiation enters the mainstream in food processing? Inaction simply continues to put people at risk.

Canada’s food industry is a major exporter. Can we continue to jeopardize export revenue, through sheer inaction on a proven safe method of protecting our food?

Gamma rays come from man-made radioisotopes like cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Both are made in nuclear reactors. As with irradiation machines, Canada is also the world leader in Co-60 production. We make it in reactors like the NRU at Chalk River, which is a research reactor designed to produce large numbers of neutrons, and in CANDUs like those operated by Bruce Power and Ontario Power Generation. (CANDUs also make all the electricity in the “Nuclear” category in Tables 1 and 2 in the left-hand sidebar.) If Canada got its act together and finally started making food safer with gamma rays, this would spur the rest of the world to use this safe and effective technology. Countries like Bangladesh lose up to 20 percent of domestic agricultural harvests to pests, including insects. Gamma rays from Canadian Co-60 could kill those insects before they destroy the harvest.

Irradiated beef is good enough for astronauts on the International Space Station. They simply cannot afford to ingest anything contaminated. Well, if we refuse to similarly protect food here on earth, what does that say? Does it say that we here on earth can afford to risk eating contaminated food?

5 Responses to Irradiated food keeps astronauts healthy and productive. Why can’t we earth dwellers have it?

  1. donb
    December 19, 2012 at 10:20 am

    There are a number of traditional recipes that call for raw eggs, but we are often reminded of the dangers of using them. I would love to have irradiated eggs to solve the problem.

  2. crf
    December 19, 2012 at 11:50 am

    donb, in Canada salmonella in raw eggs in much less of a problem than in the USA. I don’t know the reason why. Salmonella can grow in the egg, and also bacteria can live on the outside. http://www.eggs.ca/faq/egg-handling

    Anyway, if you only eat raw eggs occasionally, and wash the outside of the eggs before using them, then your absolute increase in risk of illness must be miniscule.

  3. James Greenidge
    December 19, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    Seasons Greetings!

    Very informative article! I remember munching irradiated beef cubes at the AEC pavilion at the New York Worlds’ Fair in 1964. People were flocking to try some and seconds too. Flip to today and you’d be lucky to get a nibble. The difference is folks with Cold War jitters and Hiroshima nightmares about anything nuclear came in and minxed anything nuclear. This issue hits hard with me because this food technology could’ve helped sustain so many in the third world yet fear even triumphed humane concerns. (One big reason I’ve no tolerance for anti-nukers). Once again the remedy is still is a couple of TV programs and PSAa on the facts of irradiated food and nuclear power to smash the FUD and pernicious media monopoly of anti-nukers. It’s CRAZY this hadn’t been done like yesterday by nuclear industry/unions. and professional organizations! Really, if Puppy Rescue can flash PSAs on NYC cable, why can’t nuclear people as promote their own cause and straighten out a public rendered jittery and tepid towards nuclear energy by shrill fretful people haunted by of the wall “what if” nightmares. It might help save some lives and get several millions in Africa eating better and longer.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. January 14, 2013 at 7:33 pm

    As the supply of raw materials for food/feed consumption become more and more international commodities, chicken feed, for example can have a protein ingredient produced somewhere from something in come kind of rendering facility. One would expect that these food chain products would require and carry an irradiated phytosanitary certificate, radura seal-of-approval. They do not. Thus pathogens can and do get into the food chain and transmitted/cross contaminated into your egg salad sandwich left over from Friday’s sack lunch. Don’t feed this to Grandma Tedro.
    Neutraceuticals, raw nut meats, and many other products for human consumption is another place where “gamma-irradiated” peace-of-mind should come with these raw food offerings.
    The voracity of new super-bugs, selected in the presence of anti-biotics such as tetracycline used in feed for weight gain, become increasingly difficult to remove from raw hamburger and other processed foods and vectors into the kitchen and onto your plate.
    Sad to say, but food irradion needs a “killer-ap”, a very real need. Then the limited supply availability of isotopes; Cobalt-60, and other gamma emitters becomes a bigger issue. Electron beam is being used, and is getting better.

    • January 15, 2013 at 2:11 pm

      Carl, thanks — I agree the Radura should be on all beef, pork, and chicken, not to mention many other foods in the supermarket.

      Not sure I agree though about the shortage of gamma emitters. CANDUs produce Co-60 (though the high specific activity stuff still comes from NRU, which is licensed until 2016), and if Russia suddenly stopped producing Cs-137 then someone else would step up.

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Item 1: if Ontario did not have its nuclear generating fleet, last hour’s CO2 emissions would have been AT LEAST:

5,950 metric tons, and the CIPK would have been 347.4 grams

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14,463,230 metric tons. This is a running total. Every hour, the total increases by the amount of Gas CO2 given in Table 1.

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