Food Irradiation's Advantages Will Not Escape Public Attention

January 1, 1998

First published in Food Technology Magazine, January 1998. (Download PDF version)

The approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of meat irradiation on December 2, 1997 has been universally hailed. Even some advocacy organizations and individuals that formerly opposed the procedure for a variety of reasons have been positive in their responses to this development.

The Scientific Status Summary, prepared by Dr. Dennis Olson for IFT’s Expert Panel on Food Safety and Nutrition, that follows is an excellent analysis of the tortuous history and the science that preceded the approval. IFT members and others will benefit from this readable and informative paper. Olson’s eminence in the field and his pioneering efforts to provide answers to this and other leading edge technologies are well-known and much respected.

The eagerly awaited approval of this technology by FDA was preceded a few weeks earlier by a meeting organized jointly by the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency. The findings of that meeting were extremely reassuring. The experts concluded that there was no unsafe level of food irradiation. This dramatic statement was emblematic of the already demonstrated scientific fact that food irradiation is eminently safe.

Public acceptance remains something of a conundrum. Why should people accept irradiation of all things medical and not that of foodstuffs? Forty irradiation facilities in the United States (25% of the world’s commercial irradiation facilities) sterilize all types of medical equipment including implants, intravenous fluids, instruments, gloves, bandages, gowns, sutures, and drugs. Additionally, foods for the immunocompromised and for astronauts may be legally irradiated.

My prediction is that public acceptance in this country has arrived. This is due to a remarkable concatenation of events including the gradual public recognition of the horrific nature of the Escherichia coli O157:H7 syndrome and certain other foodborne diseases, the strong stand of conscience on food irradiation made by the WHO, and the historic FDA approval. Although it has always been fashionable to criticize the FDA, all must admit to the enormous global significance of each and every finding the agency makes. Just during the past five years the heroic approval processes that resulted in the FDA stamp of approval on petitions as diverse as bovine somatotropin (BST), bioengineered foods, and Olestra have markedly transformed public opinion. And the credibility of WHO in scientific veracity is essentially unchallenged. Finally, food safety knowledgability has clearly improved over the past ten years and most Americans now seem to understand that the real threats in the food supply are not things chemical but things microbiological.

Prior to the 1990s, most U.S. citizens generally felt that food safety problems could be handled either by regulation or by antibiotics. But when the government exercised its authority to declare a pathogen illegal and this came to no avail, the lesson was not lost on a goodly number of people. Moreover, the current national debate over antibiotic resistance carries with it the sobering premise that things are so bad it is medically unsound to treat salmonellosis with antibiotics because such therapy will only reduce levels of competitive bacteria thus exacerbating the salmonella infection. Armed with such facts and exercising its collective wisdom some, if not most, of the public has concluded that for food to be truly safe there must be a kill step prior to cooking. The only viable solution to this enigma is irradiation. It is, of course, possible to come to this conclusion with reservations. Cardinal among these reservations is the necessity of providing the public an option via labeling. Others evince the caveat that the public must be educated to comprehend that one cannot treat irradiated foods like one treats Ultra High Temperature (UHT) milk. Notwithstanding this, it must be gainsaid that the primary advantage of food irradiation to the world at large may be shelf life extension which is in most instances doubled.

It is my firm belief that Americans are going eventually to love the idea of irradiated food. Especially when they find out it does not look different, it does not taste different, it will deliver the same nutrients and, most important to most, the same satisfaction. The food scares of the future that will be emblazoned across the front pages of our newspapers will not come from irradiated food but will, predictably, come from non-irradiated food. The miseries of the dairy industry—salmonella, Brucella, Listeria, and all the other grisly visitors—come from unpasteurized milk and, more and more, unpasteurized cheese. This has not escaped public attention and neither will the food safety advantages of food irradiation. When this becomes ingrained upon the American psyche in 2000 or 2010 or whenever, then the clarion cry of a new breed of consumerists might well be, “What can we do to get more of our food irradiated?”

On a recent national call-in radio program, I was confronted by the hostess in the last minute of the 45 minute show with the dilemma that dozens of people were waiting on the line with questions about food irradiation. I was asked what should the network say to them. In the expediency of the moment, I responded, “Tell them it is safer to irradiate the food than to not irradiate it . . . “ That was the last word then and it is the last word now.

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