The Controversy

In the conclusion to their review of food irradiation, the U.S. General Accounting Office stated that [11]

Despite the benefits of irradiation, the widespread use of irradiated food hinges largely on consumer confidence in the safety and the wholesomeness of these products. The cumulative evidence from over four decades of research—carried out in laboratories in the United States, Europe, and other countries worldwide—indicates that irradiated food is safe to eat. The food is not radioactive; there is no evidence of toxic substances resulting from irradiation; and there is no evidence or reason to expect that irradiation produces more virulent pathogens among those that survive irradiation treatment. In addition, nutritional losses from food irradiation are similar to other forms of food processing and would not adversely affect a food's nutritional value.

Additional meritorious reasons to support irradiation proceed from the fact that we are in an unrelenting race with a bewildering array of ravenous microbes and other parasites for our food supply. As much as one-fourth of the world's food supply is lost annually to microbial and pestilential spoilage; literally billions of dollars a year are lost. Irradiation can easily cut that in half. Furthermore, irradiation is an energy-efficient form of food preservation.

That's another plus, as is the fact that it totally precludes the use of chemical preservatives. The irradiation process occurs after the food is packaged, which means that the risk of recontamination is essentially zero. Adding all this to the fact of retention of freshness, retention of original nutritional status, little loss of flavor or appearance, and a return to medium and medium-rare hamburgers, we are left to conclude from such a calculus that we are indeed in thrall to a band of vocal, misguided Luddites opposed to the procedure. Change is overdue. But how is this to happen?

The American Medical Association's Council on Scientific Affairs published its Report No. 4, Irradiation of Food, in 1993. After a lengthy discussion of the process of food irradiation, it informed its membership and journal readers that irradiated food was not only safe and efficacious but also a desirable addition to the pantheon of food preservation processes. It concluded by stating: "The Council on Scientific Affairs recommends that the AMA affirm food irradiation as a safe and effective process that increases the safety of food when applied according to governing regulations" [13- . Similarly, the American Dietetic Association, a national and international professional association of thousands of dieticians and nutritionists, published its position on irradiated foods. It had this to say: "The ADA encourages the government, food manufacturers, food commodity groups, and qualified food and nutrition professionals to work together to educate consumers about this additional food safety tool and to make their choice available in the marketplace" [14].

In addition, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, both United Nations affiliate organizations, have endorsed food irradiation without reservation, as has the American Gastroenterology Association, thousands of physicians with professional expertise in the gastrointestinal tract. The list of endorsements is long and honorable:

US government agencies Food and Drug Administration Public Health Service

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention US scientific organizations American Veterinary Medical Association Council for Agricultural Science and Technology Institute of Food Technologists

National Association of State Departments of Agriculture International organizations

International Atomic Energy Agency Codex Alimentarious Commission Scientific Committee of the European Union United Nations

All must be given high marks for their efforts. They're on the record. Unfortunately, that is not nearly enough. All of these efforts are passive. Not one has brought its recommendations to the public, where it would have an effect.

Unless and until each of these organizations or combinations of them actively reach out and bring their message to the people, little will change; illness and death will continue to pile up, needlessly.

While I gave high marks to those national organizations who went on record in support of food irradiation, I now rescind those high marks and in their place award "F"s for failure. Their on-the-record statements go nowhere, accomplish nothing. Has anyone ever read or heard of them? Has the media given voice to them? To regain their positions of excellence, they must become active and inform consumers—directly, by taking ads in newspapers across the country, to reinforce the message or irradiation's safety and nutritional merit.

It is also time for the thousands of members of professional organizations to realize that they, too, are citizens and voters, that bad decisions affect them as adversely as everyone else. Passivity is no longer acceptable. The means to deal effectively with microbial pathogens, to rid our food of them, is at hand. Given the recent food irradiation approvals, food distributors and retailers will need all the help they can get to ensure that items are there to be purchased. For example, on July 20, 2000, the FDA announced that it had approved the use of ionizing radiation for fresh shell eggs to reduce their level of salmonella. The new regulation permits a treatment dose of up to 3 kGy [15a], and the eggs will bear the required Radura. Given the huge numbers of eggs consumed in the United States, and considering that fresh eggs are among the top three vehicles for transmission of salmonella and human salmonellosis, this federal approval will add a needed level of safety to the food supply. Furthermore, there was also good news for alfalfa sprouts. On November 3, 2000, the FDA approved the use of irradiation on seeds for sprouting, including alfalfa, to reduce its levels of pathogenic bacteria such as salmonella and E. coli O157:H7. Here, too, a considerable reduction in numbers of microorganisms will be achieved by irradiation of up to 5 kGy. Finally, the FDA has also been petitioned to approve a large number of additional foods, such as preprocessed meats and poultry, and fruits and vegetables. When approved, the numbers of foods having obtained clearance will have more than doubled.

All the above notwithstanding, at the end of the day, it is the public that must embrace food irradiation. Enthusiastic praise from professional organizations and governmental agencies will not suffice. I'll tell you why. Three years ago, a major supermarket chain in our area announced that it would begin selling irradiated, fresh, ground beef. That was good news for us as we cared not for well-done meatloaf and burgers, nor did we want to worry about E. coli O157:H7 and other potential pathogens. Over 18 months we ate irradiated ground beef. In the spring of 2004, we received a card from the supermarket informing us that the SureBeam Corporation that provided the electronic irradiation of the ground beef was going out of business for lack of funding. There simply was inadequate support for irradiation. We are back to eating well-done beef, and wondering whether we are taking undue risks. It is difficult to believe that the public prefers to accept the risks of foodborne illness rather than safe, irradiated food. Consequently it is clear to me that lacking confidence, the public will continue to shun food irradiation. Too many people associate radiation, irradiation, with radioactivity, atom bombs, Hiroshima, and Three Mile Island. Confidence building would help clear away these flawed notions. Confidence building cannot begin too soon.

We now return to the prepackaged raw vegetable fiasco. Apparently the findings and recommendations of food scientists at the University of Georgia, that raw vegetables prepackaged in an atmosphere of 3% oxygen and 97% nitrogen had no effect on the growth of E. coli O157:H7, was ignored or fell on deaf ears [15b].

With the recent country-wide outbreak of gastroenteritis among many who ate raw spinach, lettuce, and green onions, food packers and fast-food restaurant chains, such as Taco Bell, are scrambling to determine the appropriate dose of irradiation that will kill off E. coli and campylobacter, yet not wilt raw leafy vegetables. By my estimate, irradiated prepackaged foods could be in supermarkets by early 2009.

However, the anti-irradiation forces have blocked the use of food irradiation for more than 30 years, preferring illness and death to irradiated foods. They ' ve worked zealously to ensure that the word irradiation is deemed an epithet, and they've been successful.

Now comes the FDA in April 2007, announcing that it will consider approving the term pasteurized on labels of irradiated foods. The designation irradiated would appear only on foods whose texture, taste, and odor have been altered. The FDA will have a 90-day public comment period. You can bet that the anti's will be out protesting such a change. Should pasteurized prepackaged foods make it to market shelves, the public's purchase of them will be proof that after years of blind rejection of food irradiation, they have opted for the comfort and safety offered by prevention of foodborne illness. I'm betting on them.

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