Irradiated food is praised for its ability to kill various food-borne bacteria … and provide a longer shelf life. Neither one is actually a good thing. And here’s why.

Representative Douglas Bosco (D-Calif) said this about  irradiation in 1987 (published in The Congressional Record, February 4, 1987):

Imagine, if you will, the future as envisioned by the budding food irradiation industry. American families will sit down to a dinner where the bread, meat, fruit, and vegetables before them have been preserved by exposing them to nuclear radiation. The molecular structure of this food has been changed in ways that scientists are in serious disagreement as to whether human health will be harmed. At the very least, the vitamin content has been diminished. If the food contains botulism or other spoilage that would otherwise be noticeable by smell, irradiation would have eliminated the odor, allowing the consumer to be poisoned without warning. If the treated food is labeled at all, it will have a cheery, flowerlike, symbol rather than any meaningful words that inform consumers of the process to which their food has been exposed.

That may sound like a science fiction movie plot… but in reality, irradiated food may be on your dinner plate tonight and is probably in your dog’s bowl. And it’s been there since the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the use of irradiation in 1963.

What Is Food Irradiation?

Food irradiation is a process that uses radiation to control microbes and extend food shelf life. During irradiation, gamma rays, x-rays, or high-energy electrons pass through the food to kill bacteria and viruses that cause foodborne illness. The FDA says that irradiation does not make the food radioactive, nor does it change the taste, texture, or appearance of the food. 

What Is Irradiation Used For?

Irradiation started with wheat to get rid of bugs, then moved to onions, then potatoes … and the list continued to grow. It now includes beef, pork, shellfish, fresh fruits and vegetables, lettuce and spinach, mollusks (oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops), poultry, seeds for sprouting (such as alfalfa sprouts), fresh shell eggs, spices, and seasonings.

Irradiation was introduced to: 

  • Eliminate food poisoning by reducing parasites and harmful bacteria
  • Prevent spoilage by destroying bacteria, mold and yeast
  • Increase shelf life by slowing the ripening of fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Kill bugs in products and packages

But instead, it has encouraged radiation-resistant bacteria, poor sanitary conditions in food production facilities, and unnecessarily long shelf life for manufactured foods, especially in the pet food industry. More about these in a bit. 

How Is Dog Food Irradiated?

Food is irradiated behind a 20-foot thick concrete wall in a building peppered with signs warning Danger: Radiation Area. Once the foods are behind those doors, they are exposed to about 2,500 times the dose of a typical chest x-ray, a level high enough to kill humans 150 times over. It kills by destroying living tissue.

When food is exposed to radiation, the same happens. Atomic bonds break apart and reorganize, becoming an entirely different biological product. And you may never know the food was irradiated.

How Do You Know Your Dog Food Is Irradiated?

You don’t! Unlike food produced for human consumption, there are no laws that require pet food to be labeled as irradiated. In Canada, pre-packaged human food with more than 10% irradiated ingredients requires the irradiation symbol — but not dog food. And those with less than 10% fly under the radar. 

Certain foods in Canada have been approved for irradiation while others like beef, poultry, and some shellfish are being considered for approval. Irradiated food imported into Canada must meet these regulations and labeling requirements. 

The US has a long list of accepted irradiated foods. It has one notable exception … “multi-ingredient” foods. That means processed, packaged, and manufactured foods that have been irradiated don’t need to be labeled! Once again, you won’t be able to tell if your dog food has been irradiated unless you call and ask … and get an honest answer.

Choosing organic food is the only way to know that you’re not eating irradiated food, as it doesn’t meet organic standards. So this is another good reason to buy organic food … or feed your dog a whole food, raw meat diet that you’ve made yourself. 

Is Irradiated Dog Food Safe?

Not according to 90 cats that fell ill and 30 that died in Australia. That led to Australia banning cat food irradiation. But the (FDA) defends food irradiation stating the food itself is not radioactive. This implies it’s safe to eat but this isn’t the case. 

The Australian decision came after the cats in question ate irradiated dry cat food in 2009. With its pest-free status, all imported pet food products were required to be irradiated. Irradiated foods were later linked to other health risks when it was found their nutrition was less than fresh foods because of the damage to vitamins, amino acids, and fatty acids. 

Champion Pet Food, the manufacturer of the imported product, published a Consumer Report stating there were no sick cats eating the exact same food in the US and Canada. 

How Did Irradiated Food Kill Those Cats?

The answer was vitamin A deficiency. It seems that irradiation treatment destroys vitamin A. This is the reason why only cats became sick on the food: dogs have the ability to synthesize their own vitamin A but cats, being obligate carnivores, can’t. 

Champion Pet Food Also Blamed Free Radicals

“When irradiation is applied to food, the molecular structure of long-chain fatty acids (DHA, EPA) is altered. This causes the formation of free radicals that are then released into the body. ORIJEN cat food contains very high levels of EPA and DHA unsaturated fatty acids and therefore have a much greater potential for free radical formation (in response to irradiation) than do conventional dry cat foods.” Champion also noted that irradiation was required because the food included fresh meat cooked at a low temperature. 

Nearly all chicken jerky pet treats imported from China are irradiated, including Waggin Train.

Studies Document Serious Health Problems

Studies show there’s depletion of nutrients in irradiated food … but there are no studies of the long-term effects of irradiation on humans or animals. Tests on lab animals that were fed irradiated food document serious health problems including premature death, mutation, reproductive problems, tumors and suppressed immune function.

Does this sound like something you want your dog to eat… or that you want to eat yourself?

Freeze-Dried Dog Food And Irradiation

As pet owners seek new and more nutritious ways to feed their dogs, it still remains a buyer-beware scenario. Freeze-dried pet foods have become a healthier alternative to kibble and an easier option to manage over commercial or homemade raw. While freeze-dried manufacturers may not irradiate every batch they produce, they engage in constant monitoring. So if pathogens are recorded during their test and hold stage, they irradiate to be sure. So you never know if it was your batch or not (unless you call to ask).

RELATED: Pros and cons of freeze-dried dog food … 

8 Problems With Irradiation

Despite the best efforts of the FDA to assert otherwise, tests have been done and cases documented that bring the safety of irradiated pet food ingredients into question. Here are some of the problems with irradiation as first listed by food safety advocate Dr. Gayle Eversole, PhD ND, in 1998.

1. Irradiation Causes Accelerated Vitamin Loss

“Even at low doses, some irradiated foods lose 20% of vitamins such as C, E, K, and B complex. Because irradiation breaks down the food’s cell walls, accelerated vitamin losses occur during storage–up to 80%. Ironically, irradiation both creates harmful free radicals and destroys the antioxidant vitamins necessary to fight them!”

2. Irradiation Creates Trace Amounts of Radioactivity

“When electron beams are used, trace amounts of radioactivity may be created. In Europe, food irradiation has been used to camouflage spoiled seafood. Consumers should ask, “Why is the food suddenly so dirty that it has to be irradiated?” 

3. Irradiation Creates Free Radicals

“Ionizing radiation knocks electrons out of atoms and creates free radicals. These free radicals react with food components, creating new radiolytic products, some of which are toxic (benzene, formaldehyde, lipid peroxides) and some of which may be unique to irradiated foods. No one knows the long-term impact of eating unknown quantities of these damaged foods. 

“Studies on animals fed irradiated foods have shown increased tumors, reproductive failures, and kidney damage. Chromosomal abnormalities occurred in children from India who were fed freshly irradiated wheat.”

4. Radioactive Water Leak

“In Georgia, radioactive water escaped from an irradiation facility; the taxpayers were stuck with $47 million in cleanup costs. In New Jersey, radioactive water was poured into drains that emptied into the public sewer system. Few communities want the increased risks of hosting irradiation facilities and the periodic transport of radioactive materials to and from irradiators. Numerous worker exposures have occurred worldwide.”

5. Irradiation Doesn’t Kill All Bacteria

“Bacteria that survive the irradiation process become radiation-resistant.” That would explain the salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in dog foods that were undoubtedly irradiated. Eventually, this bacteria will require higher doses of radiation.

“But irradiation doesn’t kill the bacterium that causes botulism, or viruses, or mad cow disease. It can’t be used on dairy products, a major source of food poisoning. If the labels are removed, irradiation will be used very widely because producers will ‘follow the leader’ and irradiate to prevent themselves from liability for food poisoning, no matter how remote the possibility. The costs, as always, will be passed on to the consumer.”

6. Irradiation Encourages Continuation of Sloppy Processing

“In a 1997 CBS nationwide poll, 77% of US consumers did not want irradiated food. This public resistance is why food trade associations have been plotting to eliminate all requirements for labeling irradiated food. 

“Irradiation is not the only option for providing clean and sustainable food. Cleaning up filthy slaughterhouses, slowing down processing lines, increasing the number of federal meat inspectors, and encouraging local and organic agriculture instead of factory farming are just a few proposals that can lead to long-term food safety solutions without the risks of irradiation.”

7. Irradiation Destroys Beneficial Bacteria

Irradiation kills good bacteria along with the bad. Beneficial bacteria contribute to a healthy microbiome and a strong immune system. With 90% of your dog’s immune system in his gut, everything you feed him plays a role in maintaining it or damaging it. Beneficial bacteria suppress the growth of the dangerous bacteria that leads to disease, and also produce an odor that indicates food has spoiled. 

8. Irradiation Allows Storage For Years

Pet food products can be shipped internationally and undergo storage under less than ideal circumstances. The extended shelf life is a result of the destruction of DNA and the chemical transformation of the food. It can be years until this food is purchased by pet owners. All this is unbeknownst to the consumer.

It’s up to you to make sure that the food you’re feeding your dog is not irradiated. Don’t trust the label. Pick up the phone and call the manufacturer. 

However, don’t expect an easy answer. The bag of food might not be irradiated but its ingredients might have been and the manufacturer may not know. 

Once again, the safest approach is to prepare your dog’s food at home with ingredients you can trust.

RELATED: Get started with raw feeding with this 6-step primer …

References

Endoh D, Hashimoto N, Sato F, Kuwabara M. Micronucleus test in mice fed on an irradiated diet. Jpn J Vet Res. 1989 Apr;37(2):41-7.

Vijayalaxmi. Genetic effects of feeding irradiated wheat to mice. Can J, Genet Cytol. 1976 Jun;18(2):231-8.

Renner, HW. Chromosome studies on bone marrow cells of Chinese hamsters fed a radiosterilized diet. Toxicology. 1977 Oct;8(2):213-22.

 Anderson, D et al. Irradiated laboratory animal diets: dominant lethal studies in the mouse. Mutat Res.1981 Feb;80(2):333-45.

Smid K, Dvorak J, Hrusovsky J. The effect of ionizing irradiation on sensory changes in feed in relation to their utilization by dogs. Vet Med (Praha). 1985 Dec;30(12):739-48.

Vijayalaxmi. Immune response in rats given irradiated wheat. Br. J. Nutr. (1978), 40, 539.

Child, G., et al. Ataxia and paralysis in cats in Australia associated with exposure to an imported gamma-irradiated commercial dry pet food. Aus. Vet J. 2009 Sep;87(9):349-51.

 Ashley, BC, et al. Health concerns regarding consumption of irradiated food. Int J of Hyg & Envir Health. Volume 207, Issue 6.

 Coates, Marie E., et al. Effects of gamma-irradiation on the vitamin content of diets for laboratory animals. Lab Animals Ltd. Vol 3, Issue 1. First Published April 1, 1969. 

Caulfeld, Catherine D., et al. Effects of Gamma Irradiation and Pasteurization on the Nutritive Composition of Commercially Available Animal Diets. Journal of the Am. Assoc. for Lab. Animal Science, Volume 47, Number 6.



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