Bombarding food with radiation results
in preservation at a price.
In May, the US saw its worst outbreak of salmonella in decades, with food poisoning cases reported in more than 40 states. Tomatoes and peppers emerged as the chief suspects, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that nearly 1,500 people were infected and more than 270 people hospitalized. Bacterial havoc on such a massive scale has again reignited interest in the highly controversial practice of food irradiation.
The idea of irradiating food to kill harmful bacteria has been around since 1905, but the process didn’t receive approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) until 1963, when the agency green-lighted it to help control pests in flour and wheat. As the years passed, more food was gradually approved for irradiation, including various kinds of meat, vegetables and spices. In late August, the FDA approved the use of radiation on fresh lettuce and spinach, a development that was spurred on by a 2006 E. coli outbreak in those varieties of produce and sped up by this past spring’s salmonella outbreak.
Advocates of food irradiation—among them the CDC, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO)—cite prevention of contaminants such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria as the main reasons for their support of the practice. The CDC estimates that there are about 76 million cases of food-borne illness—ranging from mild to life-threatening—annually in the US. Many proponents also point to irradiated food’s longer shelf life, and cite the process as a way to reduce or avoid pesticides while growing crops.
Although international laws vary, all food products sold in US stores (with the notable exception of spices) are required to have labels that set them apart as irradiated food. The sunny side of food irradiation is represented by the effectively minimalist radura logo, which depicts a two-leaved plant enclosed by a circle, with breaks in the top half that allude to ionizing rays.
Opponents of irradiation note, however, that this aesthetically pleasing icon glosses over the many concerns that exist about the practice. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of the consumer group Food & Water Watch (www.foodandwaterwatch.org) based in Washington, DC and author of Zapped! Irradiation and the Death of Food (Food & Water Watch Press), explains, “It looks like a flower, and gives the impression that irradiation is good for one’s health and for nature.” But organizations such as Food & Water Watch have discovered that irradiation may lead to numerous health problems, findings that starkly diverge from the FDA’s position that irradiation is safe. “Since the mid-1980s,” Hauter reveals, “the FDA has used 79 ‘deficient’ studies in 107 different instances when legalizing irradiation for different types of food. Their own scientists gave the designation ‘deficient.’”
Diane Hatz, founder and director of Sustainable Table (www.sustainabletable.org), a New York group that supports local sustainable agriculture, explains that a primary concern is “that the long-term effects of eating irradiated food are not known. Irradiation changes the molecular structure of food, and creates carcinogens such as benzene and toxic chemicals like toluene. Animals fed irradiated food have encountered health problems such as premature death, mutations, stillbirths and organ damage, so more independent long-term studies need to be undertaken.”
Hauter concurs. “Millions of dollars of research funded by American taxpayers has shown that irradiation creates toxicological and nutritional risks,” she says. “Irradiation bombards food with the equivalent radiation of millions of chest X-rays. For instance, spices are treated with the equivalent of a billion chest X-rays, and hamburger with the equivalent of 15 million chest X-rays.”
Irradiation has also been found to affect the flavor, odor and nutritional quality of food. Hatz says irradiation destroys the niacin and some vitamins in eggs, including up to 80% of vitamin A and half the beta carotene in orange juice. “Irradiation also creates byproducts called 2-ACBs, which do not occur naturally in food, and have been linked to cancer development in rats and genetic damage in human cells,” she adds.
A longer shelf life has been seen as a benefit of irradiated food but detractors of the process aren’t so sure. While acknowledging that “irradiation increases shelf life, renders insects sterile and kills bacteria,” Hauter points out that this only encourages poor sanitation in the global food trade.
Regulators in Europe have detected illegally imported shrimp that, Hauter says, “has been irradiated to kill the bacteria that is present because it was raised in filthy conditions. Irradiation masks the filth by killing the bacteria, and the product lasts longer. But we don't really think that consumers want to eat old, dirty food, even if it won't kill them.”
Hatz agrees. “Rather than clean up filthy conditions on factory farms or slow down line speeds at processing facilities, companies can continue any unsafe practices and irradiate food to kill off E. coli or salmonella that might be present,” she says. “What many people don't realize, though, is that irradiation does not kill off such things as the infected prions that cause mad-cow disease or viruses like foot-and-mouth disease and hepatitis. Irradiation also kills off good bacteria. In addition, food can still become contaminated after irradiation while being shipped, sold or prepared.”
A shift towards greater awareness of food irradiation—and of the poor food-handling practices it can mask—may mean that consumers will become particularly careful in avoiding that deceptively inviting radura logo. As Hatz plainly puts it, “If there is no demand for irradiated food, companies will not continue to sell it.”