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The promise of irradiated foods.

Exposing food to gamma rays can preserve it for years, alleviate the problem of food-borne disease, and deliver the Third World from post-harvest spoilage. But is it safe?

Although many people have never heard of food irradiation, it is not new. In 1908 it was discovered that X-rays can kill off unwanted beetles on tobacco plants. Twelve years later a French scientist discovered that ionizing radiation can be used to preserve foods. During and after World War 11, the U.S. Army conducted studies on the use of irradiation to preserve poultry, seafood, and ground meat. This led, in 1958, to Congress' recognizing food irradiation as being potentially beneficial. To ensure safety, Congress demanded that the FDA test it as a "food additive" rather than a food process. This distinction, while not exactly accurate, ensured that irradiated foods would have to undergo more stringent testing. It also meant that any approved foods would have to be labeled as having been irradiated.

Until recently, most food companies have had cheaper chemical alternatives to irradiation and have largely ignored the technology. An initial user was NASA. Almost from the beginning, our astronauts have been fed food preserved by irradiation. Hospitals have used irradiation as a way to serve germ-tee meals to those patients whose immune systems have been impaired. The AIDS epidemic may accelerate this use.

Still, if you are like most Americans, you may never have eaten irradiated food. You have, however, ingested something called ethylene dibromide (EDB). Until it was recently banned as a carcinogen, fumigating grains, fruits, and vegetables with EDB was one of the cheaper alternatives to irradiation that food companies could use. EDB was replaced by many food companies with methyl bromide. Now it too is suspected of being a carcinogen. If methyl bromide is banned, many experts predict irradiation will take its place. Whether it does depends largely on how consumers react. The word "irradiation" alone is enough to scare many people off. Ironically, the residue left by chemical fumigants is never mentioned on food labels. Irradiation, which leaves no residue, must be prominently disclosed on food labels.

Post-harvest disinfestation and preservation of foods is not something we can do without. In the Third World, where neither chemicals nor irradiation is used, 25 to 30 percent of harvested foods is lost to spoilage and pests. Success in handling foods after the harvest is a big part of the American agricultural revolution. To protect this miracle, the FDA delayed banning EDB for some years. Part of the reason was that there were no good alternatives for ridding our foods of insects. In 1986, fruits and vegetables were approved for lowdose irradiation and then shortly after EDB was finally banned. Although the FDA spent years openly reviewing hundreds of studies before making this decision, controversy immediately ensued. Among other things, detractors of irradiation think that the timing was suspicious, and they worry that more studies should have been done.

If you have not seen irradiation labels at the grocers' yet, it is because irradiation processing plants are expensive to build. They must be operated at a high volume to be costeffective. At these plants, food is conveyed past a radiation source where it receives a measured dosage. Although low-dose irradiation will not change the taste of the food, cause any radioactivity, or leave any residue, it remains to be seen whether enough people willeat it. The food industry is content to hold off for now, afraid that an unknowing public will reject "irradiated food" as an oxymoron-- a contradiction in terms. Just in case the food industry tries to introduce it, anti-irradiation activists have put them on notice that they will demonstrate against grocers that sell irradiated foods. They have also persuaded some Congressmen to seek legislation to overrule the FDA. Maine became the first state to ban the sale of all irradiated foods except spices. The New Jersey legislature tried to do the same thing, but the bill was pocket-vetoed by Governor Kean.

Politics aside, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the FDA's decision. Hundreds of studies carried out over 30 years of testing appear to substantiate the safety and efficacy of low-dose irradiation. Supporters include the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization. Countries that allow a higher dose of food irradiation than the United States include Japan, France, Canada, the Soviet Union, the Netherlands, Belgium, Brazil, Israel, South Africa, Chile, and 23 other countries. The medium dosage levels these countries use kill more organisms and extend shelf lives longer than the low dosages used in the United States that mainly kill insects. American food exporters worry that we may soon be at a competitive disadvantage over this issue. Food importers worry that the disparity will preclude sales of certain foods in the United States.

Even irradiation's severest critics agree that the problem is not that the food is made radioactive, a common misconception. Rather, they feel that the food has been chemically altered in a way that may make it unsafe to eat over time. When beef is irradiated at 50 times the current U.S. maximum, for example, 65 byproducts are found. Ninety percent of these, however, are also found in nonirradiated food. The 10 percent of byproducts unique to irradiated foods (unique radiolytic products or URPs) form the biggest bone of contention. The FDA claims that URPs are created in such small quantities and are so similar to other safe byproducts that they should be considered harmless.

George Pauli, an FDA consumer safety officer, states, "At irradiation levels currently allowed, the total URPs created in a food would never exceed three parts per million. Any single URP, therefore, would be measured in parts per billion. No URP we have found to date is radically different from what is normally found in cooked foods."

FDA studies also point out that freezing, frying, and microwaving foods can create as many radiolytic products as irradiation. The critics agree but contend that food exposed to irradiation, even for a short time, must contend with a much more destructive energy level than that found in traditional food processing.

Such controversies make it important for the consumer to become educated about irradiation. Different dosages are used with different foods to achieve different results. Beyond a certain dosage, the taste and texture of a treated food can be affected. The trick is to use enough irradiation to treat a particular food, but not so much that taste and texture are changed. In any case, the less irradiation used, the fewer URPs created.

To promote irradiation, Congress has given the Department of Energy permission to build six irradiation plants. The plants will be located in Iowa, Oklahoma, Florida, Washington, Hawaii, and Alaska. These plants will study the irradiation of such items as pork, vegetables, citrus and deciduous fruits, and fish. The planned construction of these plants has attracted the attention of the antinuclear groups. Although all agree that there is no possibility of such food plants' "melting down," critics fear for the safety of workers and neighbors. Activists are also concerned about the hazards of transporting radioactive material to these plants. Proponents point to the more than 1,000 hospital radiation-therapy units and 50 medical products irradiators that have not presented safety hazards.

There is promise and there is risk. This has always been the nuclear paradox. The promise of this technology is that man may soon be able to warehouse healthy meals for years on end, without reftigeration. What's more, some of the billions of dollars in medical expenses and lost wages caused by food-borne disease each year could be put to better use. Finally, we could reduce our dependence on chemical fumigants that leave residues and may cause cancer.

The reality is we will never have, and have never had, absolute guarantees about the food we eat. Food, or the lack of it, can already kill us or make us sick. All of us thus must decide if the devil we know is better than the devil we don't.
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Title Annotation:is it safe
Author:SerVaas, Paul
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1988
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