Nuclear Technology - Civilian Uses - Food Processing and Agriculture

Food Processing and Agriculture

In biology and agriculture, radiation is used to induce mutations to produce new or improved species. Another use in insect control is the sterile insect technique, where male insects are sterilized by radiation and released, so they have no offspring, to reduce the population.

In industrial and food applications, radiation is used for sterilization of tools and equipment. An advantage is that the object may be sealed in plastic before sterilization. An emerging use in food production is the sterilization of food using food irradiation.

Food irradiation is the process of exposing food to ionizing radiation in order to destroy microorganisms, bacteria, viruses, or insects that might be present in the food. The radiation sources used include radioisotope gamma ray sources, X-ray generators and electron accelerators. Further applications include sprout inhibition, delay of ripening, increase of juice yield, and improvement of re-hydration. Irradiation is a more general term of deliberate exposure of materials to radiation to achieve a technical goal (in this context 'ionizing radiation' is implied). As such it is also used on non-food items, such as medical hardware, plastics, tubes for gas-pipelines, hoses for floor-heating, shrink-foils for food packaging, automobile parts, wires and cables (isolation), tires, and even gemstones. Compared to the amount of food irradiated, the volume of those every-day applications is huge but not noticed by the consumer.

The genuine effect of processing food by ionizing radiation relates to damages to the DNA, the basic genetic information for life. Microorganisms can no longer proliferate and continue their malignant or pathogen activities. Spoilage causing micro-organisms cannot continue their activities. Insects do not survive or become incapable of procreation. Plants cannot continue the natural ripening or aging process. All these effects are beneficial to the consumer and the food industry, likewise.

The amount of energy imparted for effective food irradiation is low compared to cooking the same; even at a typical dose of 10 kGy most food, which is (with regard to warming) physically equivalent to water, would warm by only about 2.5 °C (4.5 °F).

The specialty of processing food by ionizing radiation is the fact, that the energy density per atomic transition is very high, it can cleave molecules and induce ionization (hence the name) which cannot be achieved by mere heating. This is the reason for new beneficial effects, however at the same time, for new concerns. The treatment of solid food by ionizing radiation can provide an effect similar to heat pasteurization of liquids, such as milk. However, the use of the term, cold pasteurization, to describe irradiated foods is controversial, because pasteurization and irradiation are fundamentally different processes, although the intended end results can in some cases be similar.

Detractors of food irradiation have concerns about the health hazards of induced radioactivity. Also, a report for the American Council on Science and Health entitled "Irradiated Foods" states: "The types of radiation sources approved for the treatment of foods have specific energy levels well below that which would cause any element in food to become radioactive. Food undergoing irradiation does not become any more radioactive than luggage passing through an airport X-ray scanner or teeth that have been X-rayed."

Food irradiation is currently permitted by over 40 countries and volumes are estimated to exceed 500,000 metric tons (490,000 long tons; 550,000 short tons) annually world wide.

Food irradiation is essentially a non-nuclear technology; it relies on the use of ionizing radiation which may be generated by accelerators for electrons and conversion into bremsstrahlung, but which may use also gamma-rays from nuclear decay. There is a worldwide industry for processing by ionizing radiation, the majority by number and by processing power using accelerators. Food irradiation is only a niche application compared to medical supplies, plastic materials, raw materials, gemstones, cables and wires, etc.

Read more about this topic:  Nuclear Technology, Civilian Uses

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