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Irradiation: Can it save our food supply from harmful bacteria and pests?

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October 25th, 2011

Not a week goes by without a new food scare. Tainted ground meat, lettuce, cantaloupes, and even peanut butter have been involved in national food-borne illness outbreaks and subsequent recalls. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that each year about 3,000 Americans die and a whopping 48 million people are sickened from food-borne illnesses. Salmonella is the most common culprit, but others like Listeria and E. coli are just as menacing. In today s world of giant agri-businesses, the food we eat travels far distances and is processed by numerous plants and handlers all around the country. One instance of improper handling can contaminate food headed to dozens of states, and by the time a problem is discovered, it s a sure bet that many people have already been infected. Wouldn t it be wonderful to simply wave a magic wand over our food supply and zap the danger out of it? While it s not a magic wand, irradiation does zap away harmful bacteria and pests. Some people believe that irradiation could do for meat and produce what pasteurization did for milk, but others view it as another way to protect the interests of large agri-businesses at the expense of the consumer.

What is irradiation?

Irradiation is the process of exposing food to radiant energy in the form of gamma rays, electron beams, or x-rays. As radiation passes through the food, it effectively kills common food-borne bacteria and insects like fruit flies. The radiation does not cook the food nor does it remain in the food, just as a person is not radioactive after receiving an x-ray. Irradiation can be applied to raw meat and poultry, grains, and raw produce. It was approved for use in the U.S. back in 1963 and since then it has been used routinely with spices which are loaded with bacteria. Beyond that, irradiation has been slow to catch on here in the U.S. despite the fact that it has been used successfully on a variety of foods in other countries for years. The World Health Organization supports the process, saying, Food irradiation is a thoroughly tested process and when established guidelines and procedures are followed, it can help ensure a safer and more plentiful food supply. The International Atomic Energy Agency and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations also support the use of irradiation, concluding that the process does not present any enhanced toxicological, microbiological, or nutritional hazard beyond those brought about by conventional food processing techniques. Opponents of irradiation do not agree. They maintain that irradiation compromises the quality of food by destroying essential vitamins and minerals and creating free radicals. Irradiation opponents also point out that while irradiation does kill lethal bacteria, it masks filthy slaughtering and processing conditions and gives consumers a false sense of security.

Higher costs forpoorer quality food

In the reportFood Irradiation: a Gross Failure, Food and Water Watchconcludes that the process results in higher costs for poorer quality food. However, Dr. J. Scott Smith, a professor at Kansas State University s Food Science Institute, says that irradiation adds only about ten cents to the cost of a regular beef hamburger patty. Presently, the FDA requires that all irradiated foods sold in grocery stores display the radura symbol on the package. Restaurants and institutional food services have no such requirement, so chances are, if you have eaten a hamburger at a large chain, you ve eaten irradiated food. If you want to buy irradiated meat to cook and serve, it s going to be tough to find because it s not a big seller. Consumers have been confused or even frightened by the radioactive flower on the label, and proponents of irradiation have not effectively educated the public about the safety and benefits of the process. So far, consumers have been averse to irradiated foods, which is ironic since most people have probably eaten it in restaurants. With few exceptions irradiated foods are not available at the retail level, says Smith. There are irradiated mangoes from India in the large cities [treated for insect control]. Schwan s [a major purveyor of frozen food based in Minnesota] and Omaha Steaks sell irradiated raw frozen ground beef patties. And last I heard, Wegman s has an irradiated frozen ground beef patty. Schwan s only sells irradiated raw frozen beef patties. I am a regular Schwan s customer and the salesmen tell me the products sell fine. It s puzzling that consumers don t have a choice when it comes to purchasing irradiated foods, just as they have a choice between regular foods and organic foods. Many experts would say irradiation is dead, says Scott. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but customer fear and anti-food processing groups have been very effective in giving it a bad name. That is too bad because we will never see an end to the food safety issue unless there is a processing step to destroy the pathogenic bacteria. Irradiation is a perfect solution, but ignorance has prevailed for now. I might note that all food used in our space program has been irradiated for years. We don t want our astronauts getting food poisoning when in outer space. That would be a disaster. michele.harris@erickson.com

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