Irradiation is a technique that exposes food to electron beams or to gamma radiation, a high-energy light stronger than the X-rays your doctor uses to make a picture of your insides. Gamma rays are ionizing radiation, the kind that kills living cells. As a result, irradiation prolongs the shelf life of food by

1 Killing microbes and insects on plants (wheat, wheat powder, spices, dry vegetable seasonings)

1 Preventing potatoes and onions from producing new sprouts at the eyes

1 Slowing the rate at which some fruits ripen

1 Killing disease-causing organisms such as Trichinella, Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria (the organism responsible for a recent outbreak of food poisoning from packaged meats and cold cuts) on meat and poultry

In 1998, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA — which had already approved irradiation for plant foods, pork, and poultry) put its stamp of approval on irradiating fresh red meat products as a way to enhance, but not replace, the safe handling and storage of meat in the processing plant, supermarket, and your kitchen. As of 2005, there are also standards for irradiating fresh and frozen shellfish. And, no, irradiating food does not make the food radioactive. But you already knew that, right?

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