Today, the monolithic recall of eggs due to salmonella contamination grew even bigger.  Hillandale Farms, of Iowa (like Wright County Egg Co.), voluntarily recalled 170 million eggs that it sent to 14 states, stating that “laboratory-confirmed illnesses” had been associated with the eggs.  Federal officials followed Hillendale’s announcement with the clarification that, in addition to Wright County Egg’s eggs, Hillendale’s eggs were, in part, the cause of the large national salmonella outbreak that has sickened close to 2,000 people in multiple states since May. 

One Illinois egg producer, National Pasteurized Egg, has seized this opportunity by announcing earlier today that it has ramped up production of its Davidson’s Safest Choice Pasteurized Shell Eggs to meet anticipated increased demand for its product.  So yes, it is obviously entirely possible, assuming egg companies can foot the increased production cost bill, to eliminate the problem of Salmonella contamination of shell eggs.

Pasteurization has long been a critical public health measure, and a boon to our collective wellness.  Personally, having seen the devastation first hand that can be wrought by unpasteurized, raw products (see Barb Pruitt’s story by CNN’s Elizabeth Landau today) I would trade the dubious deleterious effects brought on by pasteurization of virtually any food product that I consume, if that option was widely available. 

Is it time to consider a similar final kill step on all foods intended to be consumed raw?  Food irradiation is based on the principle of using energy to ionize a material, in this case food. Ionizing irradiation treatment involves chemical reactions with microbes, but these reactions are not dissimilar to chemical reactions induced by cooking, canning, curing, drying, freezing, or other food processing techniques. There are pros and cons to every food processing technique. In food irradiation, high speed particles or rays are harnessed by a machine. The particles used for this purpose are common in nature, and part of the energy that comes from the sun. These particles are focused in the process to penetrate the food, and result in the creation of free radicals that damage the DNA of organisms, especially microbial contaminants at the doses used for food. Depending on the organism and irradiation dose, this process is capable of enhancing food safety and quality of the food. 

And what about taste?  According to leading scientists at UC Davis,

Most irradiated food tastes the same as non-irradiated.

Flavor changes depend on the type of food being irradiated, the irradiation dose, and the temperature during treatment.

Many fruits and vegetables are unchanged by low dose irradiation. Irradiation can substitute for insect quarantine treatments that damage fruit quality, so irradiated fruit may taste better. Dried fruit softens slightly and is easier to rehydrate.

Poultry, pork and other meats show little or no flavor change at the level of irradiation currently approved by the FDA. High dose irradiation needed to prepare food for astronauts is done while the meat is frozen to preserve flavor.

In addition to pasteurization, is irradiation the silver bullet in combating the seemingly endless contamination problems we see in our food supply?  Read a multi-part series on the pros and cons of irradiation on commercially produced foods