GMO Foods and Irradiation

Genetically modified organisms, also called genetically engineered (GE) or biotech foods, are bred using techniques that allow scientists to introduce genes from other plant varieties, animals, bacteria, or viruses into a plant to give it certain traits. The technology is widely used to create crops resistant to pests or able to withstand chemical bug and weed killers.


Corn, soy and canola are some of the largest GMO crops, but other vegetables and fruits aren’t far behind. According to the True Food Network, a project of the anti-GMO Center for Food Safety, biotech versions of 32 common fruits and vegetables including grapefruits, apples, carrots, and cabbages, are being field-tested. Corn, papayas, radicchio and yellow crookneck squashes are already on the market. 


Advocates say biotechnology is the way to create super-foods to feed the world. Critics are concerned about the potential for environmental effects (because GMO traits can spread widely within and among crops) and health problems down the line (because the foods are so new, their long-term effects on humans aren’t known).


How can you tell if you’re buying a fresh GMO fruit or vegetable? If the PLU (price look-up) code on the sticker has five digits, and the first one is eight, it is.   Four digit numbers starting with eight are not. The labeling system, however, is voluntary.


Using radiation (gamma rays, X-rays, or an electron beam) to kill disease-causing bacteria and other microbes has been practiced for years on many foods including herbs, spices, meat, and produce. Government and industry groups see the method as a way to improve food safety, because it destroys pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. But consumers have resisted, wary of any technique that uses radiation.


Irradiation doesn’t make the food radioactive. But depending on the dose, it can change a food’s texture and taste. Organic foods cannot be irradiated, and many organic-food advocates prefer other methods of getting pathogens out of the environment, such as keeping cattle-feedlot manure out of streams.


Irradiated food must be labeled with a flower-like symbol that reads “treated with irradiation,” but the food industry would like to remove any labeling requirement.


Sources: Carol Ness and the True Food Network