I wholeheartedly support Rhodes' analysis. When I first read about this
as a boy, I was shocked it wasn't being used. Ten years later, joy, joy,
we have Parmalat (TM). I HATE the 97%'s risk non-assessment... RK
August 28, 1997
Food Safety's Waiting Weapon
By RICHARD RHODES
MADISON, Conn. -- It's a good rule of thumb that technological
solutions work better than increased regulation. Before 1920,
thousands of babies died annually in New York and other large American
cities from drinking contaminated milk. The solution wasn't more
Federal dairy inspectors or a merger of Government agencies. It was
The solution to the problem of food poisoning -- whether the food
involved is hamburger, strawberries, raspberries, cider or some other
product susceptible to bacterial contamination -- has been sitting on
the shelf for most of 40 years while hundreds of thousands of
Americans have been sickened and thousands have died. It is the
equivalent of pasteurization, and its neglect is a disgrace.
The technology is food irradiation. The Army pioneered its development
beginning in 1943, and it has since passed into commercial application
in some 40 countries, including limited use in the United States.
Irradiation uses gamma rays from a solid radioactive source to disrupt
the DNA of, and thus to kill, noxious bacteria, parasites, mold and
fungus in and on agricultural products. Gamma rays are similar to
microwaves and X-rays.
Irradiation doesn't make food radioactive, nor does it noticeably
change taste, texture or appearance. Depending on dose and on whether
the food is packaged to prevent recontamination, irradiation can
retard spoilage, kill germs or even completely preserve. The World
Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the American
Veterinary Medical Association all endorse the process.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiation of pork,
poultry, fruits, vegetables, spices and grains, although its use
remains limited. Most imported spices are preserved with
irradiation. Tropical fruits like mango and papaya from Hawaii are
treated to kill exotic pests. Irradiated chicken is served in
hospitals in the Southeast. Astronauts aboard the space shuttle eat
irradiated food, including steak.
Food irradiation would have prevented the illnesses caused recently by
contaminated hamburger from Hudson Foods and the several deaths linked
to Jack in the Box restaurants in the Northwest in 1993. It could kill
the salmonella that infects up to 60 percent of the poultry and eggs
sold in the United States; the deadly mutant E. coli strain 0157:H7,
which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have
characterized as a major emerging infectious disease, and such ugly
stowaways as beef tapeworms, fish parasites and the nematodes that
cause trichinosis in pork.
Yet the new meat inspection system now being phased in by the United
States Department of Agriculture does not even mention, much less
mandate, irradiation. Neither Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman nor
the Food and Drug Administration invoked food irradiation as a
solution to the Hudson Foods situation, preferring instead to press
for destruction of 25 million pounds of meat that could have been made
edible with the technique.
A petition for authorization to irradiate red meat has languished at
the F.D.A. since 1994. Several states, including New York, have
responded to pressure from citizen groups by either banning or
imposing a moratorium on the sale of irradiated food without reviewing
scientific evidence of the technology's safety and value.
Why the gap between promise and application? Because food irradiation
-- like cancer treatment, medical diagnostics, sterilization of
medical disposables, aircraft maintenance and many other technologies
-- uses radioactivity, which Americans have been taught to
fear. Commercial irradiators use metallic cesium-137 or cobalt-60 as
sources of gamma radiation in heavily shielded processing plants; when
the radioactive sources are not being used to sanitize food, they are
stored safely underground.
Some anti-nuclear and environmental groups have campaigned against
food irradiation, even imagining a conspiracy among the Food and Drug
Administration, the World Health Organization and the nuclear power
industry to use the process to dispose of nuclear waste.
Similarly fanatic resistance plagued the introduction of vaccination,
water chlorination, pasteurization and fluoridation -- comparable
technologies that have reduced disease and saved millions of
lives. The unsupported fears of the Luddite opposition are making
people suffer needlessly.
Mr. Glickman has said that the Hudson Foods case highlights the need
to better educate the public on how to prepare food properly, but we
can't all become sterile technicians at home. Thermometers won't
protect us from E. coli-contaminated alfalfa sprouts.
Public health has been a primary responsibility of Government for more
than a century. Inspection and testing alone, however responsibly
applied, can never assure consumer safety where invisible pathogens
Pasteurization saved the babies. Irradiation can save our food.
Richard Rhodes is the author of ``Deadly Feasts: Tracking the Secrets
of a Terrifying New Plague'' and ``The Making of the Atomic Bomb.''