Q. During the winter, I tend to buy a lot of fruits and veggies from overseas, and some of them have an irradiation sticker. What does it mean when fruit is “irradiated”? Is it safe? – Meredith, KS 

A. Well, you may grow a third eye like the fish that live outside the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in “The Simpsons,” but other than that…

Just joking. Food irradiation—like pasteurization—is a measure taken to protect consumers from bacteria like E. coli. How it works, basically, is that foods are quickly zapped with gamma rays or electron beams. This, according to the Food and Drug Administration, “reduces spoilage bacteria, insects and parasites, and in certain fruits and vegetables inhibits sprouting and delays ripening.” That means a longer shelf life for irradiated items, as well as more flexibility and convenience for shippers. That's why you see a lot of irradiated fruit from overseas in the winter.

Wondering how E. Coli is getting into your food? Washoff from animal feedlots is the main culprit. Enjoy this savory passage from Fast Food Nation:

"Steven Bjerkli, former editor of Meat & Poultry, opposes irradiation... he thinks it will reduce pressure on the meatpacking industry to make fundamental and necessary changes in their production methods, allowing unsanitary practices to continue. 'I don't want to be served irradiated feces with my meat,' Bjerkli says."  

So E. Coli's no party, granted, but are irradiated foods safe to eat either? Depends on who you ask. The Environmental Protection Agency says it’s safe, as does the Center for Disease Control, the FDA, and the World Health Organization.

However (you knew that was coming), industry watchdogs like the Center for Food Safety say that irradiated food can sometimes contain mutagens, substances that cause gene and chromosome irregularities, and may even be carcinogenic. Food and Water Watch warns that irradiated fruit can sometimes lose nutrients and vitamins during storage, and both groups state that irradiated food can just taste kind of yucky. Naturally (no pun intended), Organic Consumers pans irradiated food altogether, bringing up the additional point that irradiant-resistant bacteria could evolve from the practice—the danger being that we could be stuck with super-bacteria, and no way to kill them. 

Currently, the FDA mandates that the irradiated fruits, vegetables, and meats you buy in the store have to be labeled as such. Unfortunately, when companies use irradiated ingredients in processed foods, like frozen dinners, they’re not required to give you a heads up on the label. The food you’re served in restaurants doesn’t have to be labeled either. If you’re concerned and want to avoid irradiated foods, check out Food and Water Watch’s list of irradiated foods from around the world.

So sure, it can’t hurt to avoid irradiated foods for the above health reasons. But it also can’t hurt to avoid them simply because they tend to come from overseas. Irradiated or not, genetically modified or not, if your food took a six thousand mile journey to arrive in your kitchen, it’s got a hefty carbon footprint you probably don’t want on your eco-conscience.

Story by Tobin Hack. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008