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Washington Post: US unwisely limits irradiating what we eat

Frightened Americans imagine "mutant life forms and phosphorescent food."

"Every week in the United States," warns the American Physical Society's pamphlet Accelerators and Beams, "about 100 people die from food-borne illness, even though electron accelerators can make food much safer." Non-accelerator radiation can also be used, as the 28 April Washington Post explains in the front-page article "Efforts to zap bacteria in food are slow to catch hold."

The APS pamphlet notes that irradiation "can kill dangerous bacteria like E. coli, salmonella and listeria" and that it "could join pasteurization, chlorination and immunization as pillars of public health technology." The pamphlet makes a point about the word that frames the issue: "But even though food irradiation is completely safe and does not degrade wholesomeness, nutritional value, quality or taste, consumer acceptance has been slow. That word irradiation makes people wary." The Post piece emphasizes the same point:

Professor Christine Bruhn of the University of California at Davis and others are pushing for ways to get consumers to view irradiation in a positive light.

"I would like to change the [food packaging] label to say 'Irradiated to Protect your Family' or 'Irradiated for Maximum Safety,' " said Bruhn, who has been studying consumer attitudes toward irradiation for 30 years. "But a lot of people—they just want to get rid of the i-word."

The Post reports that although scientists, public health officials, and internationally respected organizations endorse irradiation, and that even though it has been used for decades in other countries, "for many consumers it conjures up frightening images." It also draws opposition from "the nation's growing buy-local, back-to-nature movement that shuns industrial food processing."

The article quotes Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, who blames an "anti-science movement" for the resistance: "Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America."

Though the US has dozens of irradiation facilities for sterilizing medical and other products, only a "half-dozen facilities use radiation exclusively for food," the Post says. Various groups actively oppose it, claiming that "the same energy that kills bacteria can also alter the chemical structure of food," and warning that reliance on irradiation would inevitably mean lowered attention to other cleanliness practices.

A thicket of regulatory challenges constitutes another impediment to wider application. "It's a slog to make it through the FDA's approval process," the article reports. "Earlier this month, the agency approved irradiation for use on crustaceans—shrimp, lobsters, crabs—but it took 13 years. The last approval before that was for spinach and iceberg lettuce, in 2008, which took nearly a decade."

A semitechnical illustration accompanying the article depicts three irradiation processing scenarios.

(Possibly unnecessary disclosure: I was deeply involved in producing the APS pamphlet.)


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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