02 July 2008

Revisiting the Issue of Food Irradiation

Yesterday's Dayton Business Journal reported a lawsuit filed against Kroger by a woman who became sick from E. Coli- contaminated ground beef.

Two points: First, I think this falls under the caveat emptor rule. If you're gonna make burgers then it is your responsibility to make sure you know how to do it right. In this case, one should know that unless you're grinding your own meat, you risk having contaminated beef. A small risk, yes, but small is not zero. The USDA has investigated the matter and put the information on the label of the product. It is neither their job nor Kroger's to send a representative to your house and give you a slide presentation and follow-up quiz to make sure you understand.

Second, it is worth reconsidering the use of pasteurization by irradiation. Food irradiation is NOT dangerous. It is, however, a classic example of science-related public policy being steered by non-scientific special interest groups. Radiation does not make food radioactive. As one person noted, such thinking is analogous to saying that luggage becomes radioactive after being scanned at the airport.

In an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, physician and epidemiologist Dennis Maki wrote:

The efficacy and safety of food irradiation have been established through extensive research, which has demonstrated that irradiation kills or markedly reduces counts of food pathogens without impairing the nutritional value of the food or making it toxic, carcinogenic, or radioactive. Irradiation of food is already approved in the United States for most perishable foods and has been endorsed by the World Health Organization, CDC, FDA, USDA, American Medical Association, and European Commission Scientific Committee on Food. Unfortunately, because of a widespread lack of understanding of the risks and sequelae of foodborne disease and of the effectiveness and safety of irradiation — and because of intense opposition from antinuclear activists and other interest groups — irradiation of food as a public health measure has not yet achieved widespread acceptance.

Furthermore, irradiation is already used in certain circumstances, as Osterholm and Norgan write in this article, also published in the NEJM:

Hospitals and long-term care facilities have used sterilization by irradiation on a limited basis to provide immunocompromised patients with microbiologically safe meals that are more varied and higher in quality than meals prepared with the use of thermal sterilization alone. [NASA] has used irradiation to sterilize astronauts' meals, and this method of sterilization has also been used to provide foods with an extended shelf life to the military and outdoor enthusiasts.

Most healthy adults, like the woman filing the lawsuit, will recover from food-borne illnesses. But certain segments are at increased risk and, to diminish their risk, the scientific evidence suggests that it would be prudent "to recommend irradiated foods, particularly for immunocompromised people, pregnant women, children, and the elderly... and to support the use of irradiated beef in school lunch programs."

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