Factual · Powerful · Original · Iconoclastic
"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:
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.