In December 1997, FDA approved the use of irradiation for the decontamination of red meat. This approval came only four months after 25 million pounds of Hudson Foods hamburger was recalled due to contamination by potentially deadly bacteria. Despite the fears raised by anti-irradiation activists, scientists and the FDA assure the public that this process neither makes food radioactive nor toxic.
It is estimated that there are between 6.5 and 81 million cases of foodborne illness in the United States every year, causing approximately 9000 deaths. Scientists believe this number is grossly underestimated, because foodborne illnesses often go undiagnosed. Millions of cases are never reported because many people assume they have a “24-hour bug”. But, in some cases, symptoms are much more serious and can spawn dreadful consequences. Recent examples of the dangers of foodborne illnesses include:
Undercooked hamburgers from the fast food restaurant chain Jack-in-the-Box contaminated with E-coli O157:H7 left four children dead.
Guatemalan raspberries carried the parasite cyclospora to 1,500 people; 22 required hospitalization.
Hepatitis A-tainted Mexican strawberries that found their way into the school lunch program.
In recent years, scientists have traced nearly 80% of all E-coli bacterial contamination in the US to hamburger alone.
Scientists and the FDA both agree that irradiation has the potential to significantly reduce the number of deaths caused by E. coli bacteria. Although not all bacteria will be destroyed, irradiation could substantially reduce the number of disease-causing microorganisms in meat. Low dose irradiation would nearly wipe out other deadly microbes as well, such as Salmonella and Camphylobacter that contaminate fresh meat and poultry. Trichinella spiralis in fresh pork, and beef and pork tapeworms will also be destroyed. Vibrio infections caused by consuming contaminated raw shellfish can also be prevented with irradiation. However, although these measures will eradicate bacteria, cooking meat thoroughly will still be essential. . Even after irradiation, meat can become recontaminated from other sources.
Are There Side Effects to Food Irradiation?
The process of irradiation does not leave food radioactive. It works by passing energy through the food, killing potentially lethal microorganisms and leaving zero residual radiation. Unlike nuclear radiation, irradiation does not emit neutrons and therefore doesn’t leave its target capable of “melt down” or chain reactions.
Irradiation was first approved for insect deinfestation of wheat in 1963. Since then, approval for potatoes, spices, and poultry has followed. But, overall, the food industry has been slow to embrace this new technology because they fear negative consumer perception. Yet, consumer polls have shown that nearly 70% of the population is ready to accept it.
The Pros and Cons of the Irradiation Issue
Anti-irradiation activists do not believe the FDA has sufficiently proven that irradiation is safe for food. But approval of irradiation for red meat was based on the FDA’s thorough review of the worldwide scientific literature. Both its effectiveness and safety have been confirmed.
Some critics claim this technology produces free radicals that lead to cancer, birth defects, and acute radiation poisoning. But Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH., state epidemiologist and chief of the acute disease epidemiology section at the Minnesota Department of Health, emphasizes that the amount of radiation required to kill dangerous microorganisms on meat is so low that the free radicals formed during the process is actually far less than that formed by microwaving, or by any other home cooking practices. High levels of irradiation would ruin the taste, color, and texture of the meat and consumers would reject it. Therefore, the minimum dose required to kill deadly microorganisms is used in this process. Manufacturers must follow strict guidelines that will be regulated by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, a public health agency in the US Department of Agriculture.
Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. has spoken out against irradiation. In a December 1997 press release, he stated that irradiation is no silver bullet for improving the safety of meat products. Although he does not believe irradiation is unsafe, he believes it is an expensive process that will allow the meat industry to continue filthy processing practices.
“Consumers prefer to have no filth on their meat than filth sterilized by irradiation,” said Jacobson. But, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) claim that post-slaughter contamination is no longer the main problem. Reservoirs of deadly organisms have been found living inside seemingly healthy food animals, such as cattle. The meat becomes contaminated by the mere act of slaughter because the animal’s own internal microorganisms spill onto itself when cut open. Improving sanitation at the plant will not, and cannot, resolve this problem..
Anti-irradiation activist Michael Colby of the organization Food & Water believes that the responsibility for food safety lies with the individual rather than within the confines of a government mandate. He is against irradiation for more of a philosophical reason–he believes people must take an active part in producing and managing the food they eat.
Although this sounds noble in theory, there is still a large segment of the population that will continue to rely on manufacturers and importers for their food. And, because it may be a bit impractical for most people to begin raising their own chickens and cattle, and becoming completely self-sufficient, irradiation may be a practical alternative that appeals to many people. Maybe irradiation, a 20th-century technology, is a means to the end of this centuries-old public health nightmare.
CSPI Press Release, December 2, 1997, Statement of Michael Jacobson, Executive Director, on FDA’s Approval of Irradiation for Red Meat Products. Available at: http://www.cspinet.org
Food Irradiation Questions and Answers. University of Minnesota. Available at: http://www.health.state.mn.us/
Irradiation: A Safe Measure for Safer Food FDA. Center on Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available at: http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/fdirrad.html
Meng, J., Doyle, M.P. Emerging issues in microbiological food safety. Annual Reviews in Nutrition. 1997;17:225-275.
Tauxe, Robert V. Emerging Foodborne Diseases: An Evolving Public Health Challenge. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1997. Vol. 3(4).
Inspection Insights: A useful food safety tool: Irradiation Technology. JAMA. 1996;209(3):533.
Elizabeth Smoots, MD