Food Safety Held Hostage

January 01, 1997  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  The Wall Street Journal  ·  Fda

"Frozen foods are antedated, ask for yours IRRADIATED!" declared an enthusiastic rhyme in Science Digest.

"After more than 20 years, irradiated food may be coming out of the deep freeze," another magazine said. Those statements were made in 1957 and 1981, respectively. Yet this life-saving food-preservation process has only now been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use on red meat. And for other foods it’s already been approved for, it goes virtually unused.

When food is x-rayed, it receives the radiation, not you.

Why? Why have people been allowed to sicken and die? Why has food gone needlessly to rot? The answer is a cautionary tale of what happens when technophobia and crackpot "consumer advocacy" reign over science. Each year, about 9,000 Americans die of food poisoning. Nobody knows exactly how many of these deaths can be prevented with irradiation.

But it’s safe to say that three of the biggest killers — campylobacter, salmonella and E. coli — are readily destroyed by irradiation. Even one irradiation opponent, Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has acknowledged that it could save thousands of lives a year from bacteria-infected chicken alone.

The irradiation process bombards food with varying levels of ionizing radiation. Depending on the level, it can do anything from greatly retarding the spoilage of fruits and vegetables to killing disease-causing micro-organisms in meat. It’s also commonly used to sterilize medical instruments.

Almost 40 countries use food irradiation, which has the blessings of the World Health Organization, the American Gastroenterological Association, the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, and U.S. agriculture secretaries in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Researchers around the world have scrutinized food irradiation for decades, producing hundreds of studies.

Almost two decades ago, the WHO declared, "All the toxicological studies carried out on a large number of irradiated foods, from almost every type of food commodity, have produced no evidence of adverse effects as a result of irradiation."

Nobody has been more vociferous in advocating food irradiation than scientists at the FDA. Yet the agency’s heads have dragged their feet on the approval process since they were given jurisdiction over it 40 years ago, slowly approving one food type at a time for irradiation. Yet even these approvals have been little more than symbolic.

Threats of public campaigns and pickets against food processors and stores considering selling irradiated food, along with horrifying claims of anti-irradiation activists, have made it practically impossible to buy irradiated food in this country other than spices.

The pattern seems likely to continue despite a flurry of positive press coverage for last week’s FDA decision on meat irradiation. Don’t expect to see nuked filet mignon show up in your supermarket anytime soon.

Generally the arguments against food irradiation contain grains of truth, but if they were applied to other food processing and preservation procedures would basically outlaw food entirely. Consider:

  • Workers may get hurt at irradiation plants. "While irradiation does kill bacteria, it involves the use of inherently dangerous materials and poses its own risks to workers," Mr. Jacobson has declared. True, there have been about half a dozen minor accidents — and no deaths — among the nearly 40 U.S. irradiation plants that have been operating for decades. Meanwhile, each year almost two million U.S. workers are hurt on the job, and 10,000 killed. Those who harvest our food, farmers, have a job-related death rate three times the national average.
  • Irradiation creates new chemicals in food, and we don’t always know what those chemicals are. Yes, and the same is true of roasting, frying, broiling and boiling. We don’t even know the full chemical composition of most foods before they’re irradiated.
  • Some of the chemicals created during irradiation may be carcinogenic. There’s never been evidence of this. On the other hand, other types of food preservation appear to be clear human carcinogens. The incredible 75% drop in stomach cancer rates in this country since the 1930s, for instance, is generally attributed to a decline in the consumption of cured foods, especially salt-cured ones.
  • Irradiation is deadly. "One hundred thousand rads of radiation they call low-level," antinuclear activist Walter Burnstein, head of Food and Water Inc., told a national TV audience. "Six hundred rads — as you know from Chernobyl — 600 rads kills a person. One hundred thousand rads is going to be used in our apples." True. But bread is normally baked at temperatures higher than 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about half an hour. You can’t survive that, either. But it’s the bread that’s cooked, not you. What Mr. Burnstein overlooks is that it’s the apple that’s irradiated, not you.
  • Irradiation causes nutrient losses. There is indeed some nutrient loss with irradiation, as with most methods of preserving, refining and cooking food. When you boil a pot of vegetables and pour out the water, many of the vitamins go down the drain. Heat sterilization can knock out 90% of the vitamin B-1 in meats, while even high-dose irradiation reduces it by less than 20%.

When these arguments fail, opponents fall back on such silliness as Ralph Nader’s populist claim that "people are rebelling against it all over the country." Since virtually nobody’s had access to irradiated food, there’s never been anything to rebel against.

What Mr. Nader could have accurately said is that until recent food poisoning scares, polls often showed Americans to be frightened of food irradiation. Why?
Because Mr. Nader and his allies worked fastidiously to frighten them.

Irradiation opponents like to make you think of mushroom clouds, but irradiated food is no more radioactive than your luggage after it goes through the airport scanner.

Ultimately, there is only one card in the anti-irradiationists’ hand, but it is an ace. Americans have a visceral fear of radiation, a fear that began with Hiroshima and was reinforced at Chernobyl. It’s a simple equation: "Radiation" plus "food" equals fear.

There are two major ironies in the food irradiation delay. One is that "consumer advocacy" groups led the fight, even as they repeatedly refused to allow consumers to choose irradiated food that’s clearly marked as such. Second, these decades of delay allegedly stemmed from concern for our health.

Nobody knows how many hundreds of thousands of Americans have needlessly become ill, and how many have died, in the name of "consumer safety." It’s enough to make you sick.