Zapping Our Seafood Favorites for Safety's Sake

shrimpThough American consumers have been slow to trust the procedure, irradiation, if performed properly, can make food less risky to eat.  That's why the FDA recently added crustaceans--a classification that includes shrimp, lobster, crab, crayfish, and prawns--to the list of edibles that can be treated with ionizing radiation. 


Is this addition important? 


Yes, it is. Much of our seafood is imported, raised in unsanitary conditions, and often inadequately tested for contamination before it's allowed into the U.S. 


Food scientist Dr. Joe Regenstein (one of the Shelf Life Advice Advisory Board members) considers this FDA ruling a good idea because "it shows that, with patience and a real need, the FDA can actually do something." According to the FDA, irradiation will help to control pathogens and extend the shelf life of crustaceans.


What other products have been approved for irradiation?


The list of foods approved for irradiation includes poultry, meat, molluscan shellfish (such as octopus and snails) iceberg lettuce, and spinach.  The decision to add crustaceans to the list of foods that can be irradiated resulted from a petition submitted by the National Fisheries Institute, the largest trade association in the U.S. for the fishing industry.


Can the public be sure that irradiated food is safe to eat?


Irradiation of food has been allowed on some products for many years.  The FDA says that its decision to use allow ionizing radiation on crustaceans followed "a rigorous safety assessment that considered 1) potential toxicity, 2) the effect of irradiation on nutrients, and 3) potential microbiological risk that may result." 


Will radiating the seafood alter its taste?


"Only if it's misused," says Dr. Regenstein.


Will radiating these foods guarantee that they will be safe to eat?


According to the FDA, at the maximum permitted dosage of 6.0 kiloGray ionizing radiation will reduce, but not entirely eliminate the number of pathogens found in crustaceans.  Consumers must continue to practice safe food-handling methods: irradiated foods must be stored, handled, and cooked the same way as non-irradiated foods. 


Does this new ruling mean that all crustaceans sold as food must be irradiated from now on?


No. The ruling allows irradiation; it does not require it.


Do consumers always know if they are eating foods that have been irradiated?


All irradiated foods must be identified by the international symbol for irradiation (the radura, a plant in a circle) and must carry a label saying "Treated with radiation (or irradiation)." 


However, consumers may still unknowingly consume some irradiated foods because of these two exceptions to the ruling: 1) Restaurants that serve irradiated foods are not required to inform diners of this. 2) Multi-ingredient foods that contain some irradiated ingredients (for example, spices) do not need to be labeled if the main food was not irradiated. 


Does the new ruling cover only raw crustaceans?


It is much broader than that.  It also covers cooked, partially cooked, frozen, shelled, or dried crustaceans as well as crustaceans (cooked or ready-to-cook) that have been processed with other ingredients.  


How do mollusks and crustaceans differ?


If you didn't doze off in biology class (as I sometimes did), here's what you probably heard:


Most nonscientists probably think of seafood encased in a shell or in some other hard exterior (exoskeleton) as being similar.  However, crustaceans and mollusks are actually quite different. They have different nervous systems and different body types.  Most mollusks (but not all) have shells (think oysters and clams). They also have soft, unsegmented bodies.  On the other hand, crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, shrimps, etc.) have bodies that are segmented, with three distinct parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Their internal parts are protected by a hard exoskeleton.   Though both groups are invertebrates, they are in different phyla. Crustaceans are classified as members of the phylum Arthropoda (along some 40,000 other animal species including insects).  Mollusks are in the phylum Mollusca, which has some 50,000 different species. 


Why has food irradiation been slow to gain popularity in the U.S.?


Kimberly Kindy, writing for the Washington Post, points out that, although this technology has been widely accepted abroad, Americans seem to be suspicious of it.  She cites these reasons:  "... for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life forms and phosphorescent food."  She also paraphrases Frank Benso, who uses nuclear energy to kill bacteria in fruit and oysters. He says his new business venture pits him against the nation's growing buy-local, back-to-nature movement that shuns industrial food processing.


The same Washington Post article also quotes Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research Policy at the University of Minnesota, who blames an "anti-science movement" for public resistance to irradiated food. Dr. Osterholm says "Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America.”  Dr. Regenstein agrees. Why?  CDC statistics indicate that 1 out of 6 Americans get food poisoning every year, and some 3,000 of them die because of it.  Perhaps we'll do better in the 21st century. 


Source(s): "FDA Allows Ionizing Radiation to Control Foodborne Pathogens in Crustaceans"


Joe Regenstein, Ph.D., Cornell University, Dept. of Food Science "Efforts to zap bacteria in food are slow to catch hold" "Difference of Mollusks & Crustaceans" "FDA Allows Irradiation in Crustaceans for Foodborne Pathogen Control"


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