Irradiate What I Ate?

There have been voices in the past week suggesting that extending the irradiation of foods beyond spinach and lettuce may have prevented the current peanut butter salmonella outbreak. The New York Times reports:

After spinach tainted with a strain of E. coli killed three people and sickened more than 200 others in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration gave permission for irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce. It has yet to begin. Meat irradiation is permitted but rarely used. Among common items on the grocery shelf, only spices and some imported products, like mangoes from India, are routinely treated with radiation.

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What is irradition? Why is it good (or not)? below the fold…

What you need to know:

What is irradiation?

Food is irradiated by brief exposure to X-rays, gamma rays or an electron beam. The process is intended to reduce or eliminate harmful bacteria, insects and parasites, and it also can also extend the life of some products.

Advocates say it is particularly effective at killing pathogens in items like ground beef and lettuce, where they might be mixed into the middle of the product or hiding in a crevice that is hard to clean by traditional means.

Irradiation has not been widely accepted so far, for several reasons:

1. Public conception that the food is now radioactive and therefore unsafe to eat. (In fact, no radiation is left in the product at the end of the process, and there is no evidence of any cellular or molecular damage to the irradiated product).

2. Higher costs. Zapping electrons at your steak costs an extra $0.05 per lb.

3. Nutritional content decreases as a result of irradiation, for example a 15% reduction in vitamin C levels, and 25% reduction in vitamin E.

4. Irradiation may change the flavor of foods containing oils (such as peanut butter), rendering them rancid.

5. Treat the problem, not the symptom. The real issue with permitting irradiation, as some consumer groups fear, is that it resolves a problem that should not exist – “Consumers prefer to have no filth on meat than to have filth sterilized by irradiation” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) over a decade ago.

Salmonella and E. coli are avoidable if proper sanitary measures are taken by growers and manufacturers; by allowing for irradiation, processors may relax their hygiene measures and who knows where that could lead.

What to do at the supermarket:

If you see the green Radura logo, your food has been nuked.

No want, no buy. So far, consumers have proven skeptical.

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