A Moment of Science

Learning about Irradiation

Radiation is supposed to be bad for you, right? So why did the federal government recently pass legislation allowing schools to serve irradiated meat to kids?

Radiation is supposed to be bad for you, right? So why did the federal government recently pass legislation allowing schools to serve irradiated meat to kids?

Irradiating meat and other foods has become the focus of a heated scientific debate. Supporters claim that irradiating meat helps kill harmful bacteria such as E.coli, making meat safe for public consumption. Skeptics worry about potential side effects and the wisdom of feeding irradiated meat to children in the absence of long term studies.

There are two ways to irradiate meat. One involves exposing meat to a beam that blasts it with electrons traveling at high speeds. According to practitioners, the electron beam targets and destroys harmful bacteria, insects, and other disease-causing agents, effectively sterilizing the meat.

The other method involves exposing meat to low levels of nuclear radiation to the same effect. According to irradiation advocates, treating meat in this fashion removes harmful agents without lowering nutritional value. And since the levels of radiation are so meager, there’s no danger of causing the meat to become radioactive.

Irradiation opponents claim that while the treatment may destroy some disease-causing agents, it does not destroy all bacteria. Radiation-resistant bacteria may then multiply and grow to toxic levels.

Without long term studies, it’s difficult to know the future harm and benefits that may result from irradiated meat. Meanwhile, it’s best to be aware of what restaurants, supermarkets, and schools are putting on your plate.

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