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What is irradiation?

Panicked by recalls and warnings, food producers and companies need effective ways to make foods less prone to bacterial contamination. One current solution: irradiation. The process entails exposing food to ionizing radiation (particles and rays released by radioactive material) to reduce pathogens like Salmonella and E. coli. But is irradiation a safe answer to bacterial conundrums? Critics say irradiation may lessen foods’ quality by altering nutrients like antioxidant vitamins E and C. And no long-term studies exist on irradiated foods’ safety for humans.

Plus, you might not know you’re eating irradiated food. Bulk and packaged foods must display the Radura symbol and the statement “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation,” but food containing only some irradiated ingredients (spices in processed foods or meat in sausage, for example) and restaurant foods aren’t required to bear the label. Unless you see the Radura sign, the only sure way to avoid irradiated food is to look for the USDA Organic symbol.

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