Irradiated Food Slow to Catch On

Monday, 28 Apr 2014 07:05 AM

By Elliot Jager

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Some 3,000 food poisoning deaths a year could be averted, scientists say, if irradiation were more widely used, The Washington Post reported.

Irradiation has been safely utilized to kill bacteria and pathogens in foods and fruits for years. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, backed by the World Health Organization, and endorsed by both the American Medical Association and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to the Post.

Using gamma rays, electron beams, and X-rays, irradiation has been used to kill bacteria in minutes. In the U.S. irradiation facilities are used mostly to sterilize medical equipment and supplies including tampons and bandages.

Irradiation of foods has been slower to catch on.

Fruits and vegetables from Hawaii have been irradiated to kill insects. Wegmans supermarkets sell irradiated hamburger meat, and mail order Schwan's Home Service and Omaha Steaks are irradiated.

Abroad, where irradiation has been used more extensively, there have been no reports of any harm to people.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said that the "anti-science movement" is to blame for slowing the use of food irradiation.

"Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America," Osterholm told the Post. Besides 3,000 food poisoning deaths, one out of six people will get sick each year from eating contaminated food.

Irradiation is opposed by Public Citizen and Food and Water Watch. Their lobbying has kept irradiated food out of the National School Lunch Program. The groups also oppose removing from products the Radura label— a green plant in a circle— signifying that food has been irradiated, the Post reported.

Opponents say that irradiation creates carcinogens and expanded use could undermine routine hygienic measures that now keep foods from being contaminated.

Irradiation supporters say changes in the chemical makeup of food is not automatically dangerous. Food is changed in the canning process and even when eggs are fried. They also point out that processes such as chemical washes for chickens and fumigation for strawberries are not disclosed on packaging.

Most irradiated eatables consumed today are found in the ingredients of frozen processed foods and do not bear the Radura logo. Spices represent the principal type of irradiated food. Imported spices can carry contaminants introduced during harvesting or the drying process.

Christine Bruhn, a University of California at Davis specialist in consumer attitudes toward irradiation, wants the practice presented in a positive light. "I would like to change the label to say 'Irradiated to Protect your Family' or 'Irradiated for Maximum Safety.'"

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