Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Because ionizing radiation damages delicate biological machinery like DNA and proteins, it kills spoilage and disease microbes in food, thus extending its shelf life and making it safer to eat. Tests have shown that low doses of radiation can kill most microbes and more than double the shelf life of carefully wrapped refrigerated meats. There is, however, a characteristic radiation flavor, described as metallic, sulfurous, and goaty, which may be barely noticeable or unpleasantly strong.

Beginning in 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiation to control a number of pathogens in meat: first trichinosis in pork, then salmonella in chickens, and E. coli in beef. A treatment like irradiation is an especially valuable form of insurance for the mass production of ground meats, in which a single infected carcass can contaminate thousands of pounds of meat, and affect thousands of consumers. But its use remains limited due to consumer wariness. Decades of testing indicate that irradiated meat is safe to eat. But one other objection is quite reasonable. If meat has been contaminated with enough fecal matter to cause infection with E. coli, then irradiation will kill the bacteria and leave the meat edible for three months. However, it will still be adulterated meat. Many consumers set a higher standard than the absence of living pathogens and months of shelf life for the food from which they take daily nourishment and pleasure. People who care about food quality will seek out meat produced locally, carefully, and recently, and for enjoyment within a few days, when it’s at its best.