In food we trust. That motto guides us as much as the one that graces our currency. We take for granted the food we buy in grocery stores or eat in restaurants, trusting implicitly that it will satisfy our hunger, build strong bodies 12 ways, and keep us healthy.
That trust may be a bit misplaced. Nearly 200 people in the United States, most of them children or elderly, die each week from illnesses they contract from food. Estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Washington, D.C., suggest that 6 to 33 million people are stricken with food-borne diseases each year. Major outbreaks are grabbing headlines with greater frequency-consider the recent Hudson Foods recall of 25 million pounds of bacteria-tainted beef, contaminated Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers, Odwalla apple juice, and Guatemalan raspberries-while many minor ones go unreported.
Late this spring, President Clinton gave voice to growing concern by public-health officials over our food supply by calling for “new steps using cutting-edge technology to keep our food safe.” One of the technologies that Clinton singles out in his proposed $43 million National Food Safety Initiative is food irradiation, a process that has long been lauded by food-safety experts even as it languishes in the backwaters of research and development. “If the president’s program takes hold, food irradiation could get the political push it needs,” says James Tillotson, director of the Food Policy Institute at Tufts University.
“The benefits of food irradiation are overwhelming,” says Richard Lechowich, director of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. High-energy radiation kills critters that live in or on food, including the deadly E. coli O157:H7 bacterium and the salmonella and campylobacter species of bacteria found in most uncooked chicken and turkey. “Widespread irradiation of poultry alone in this country could prevent thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths every year,” concurs Douglas Archer, former deputy director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition at the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
A major benefit of irradiation is that it can occur after food is packaged and sealed to kill any organisms that may have contaminated the food between production line and plate. “We don’t live in a perfect world where we always detect E. coli on a processing line, and where everyone washes their hands and cutting boards and cooks meat and poultry to the proper temperature,” says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California at Davis. Food irradiation is like an air bag in a car, she says. Both offer an extra measure of safety in case of carelessness or accident.
More than 40 countries share this view, having authorized irradiation for everything from apples in China and frog legs in France to rice in Mexico, raw pork sausages in Thailand, and wheat in Canada. Irradiation has been endorsed not only by the U.N. World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization, but also by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the American Medical Association, and the American Public Health Association, among others. The process can legally be used in the United States for killing insects in grains, flour, fruits, and vegetables; for preventing stored potatoes, onions, and garlic from sprouting; and for killing microbes, insects, and parasites in spices, pork, and poultry.
But despite such wide-ranging approval, actual use of irradiation in the United States has been limited. Astronauts have eaten irradiated food ever since the Apollo 17 moon shot in 1972, when they carried sandwiches made from irradiated ham, cheese, and bread. Space shuttle crews dine on radiation-treated food, and it will almost certainly show up on space station menus. Some hospitals and nursing homes serve irradiated chicken to people with weakened immune systems, including AIDS patients, burn victims, people undergoing chemotherapy, and patients who have just had a bone marrow or organ transplant. And a few independent grocers carry irradiated produce and poultry. But the vast majority of companies that grow, process, or sell food shy away from this technology.
Why? The food industry has been reluctant partly because of public fear of radiation. In fact, a savvy organization of activists known as Food and Water claims it has held food processors in check simply by threatening to expose any company that dares use the technique. But that may change. Advocates contend that such fears of irradiated food are not only groundless but, with each news report of contaminated food, fading quickly as consumers consider the alternative of ignoring this safeguard. The issue now, they say, is whether the technology is ready for commercial use and can work at reasonable cost.