Is food irradiation good enough that we could
theoretically go back to having rare hamburgers, soft-boiled eggs and
unpasteurized milk? I miss all of those!
bond: I miss the hollandaise sauce at breakfast buffets, homemade
mayonnaise, and eggnog made from scratch. Oh, and I miss raw chocolate
chip cookie dough like the deserts miss the rain.
answer to your question is no. If you’re going to gamble, head for
Vegas (or Reno—it’s nice there, too). No food preservation method is
good enough for you to take a completely risk-free bite of any food,
especially when it comes to undercooked meat or egg products. Although
irradiation can vastly reduce pathogens, safe handling and cooking
rules must be heeded.
The longer and perhaps more interesting
answer is this: Even if irradiation (ionizing radiation) were effective
enough to completely sterilize our food, we might want look before we
leap when it comes to this technology.
As is my style, I’ll give you some pros and cons and let you decide.
an era marked by food recalls, deadly contaminations, and food borne
illnesses aplenty, irradiation could prevent illness and deaths. Not
only can it kill insects and parasites, it can reduce or eliminate such
nasty microorganisms such as E.coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and
• Irradiation is endorsed as safe by the Centers
for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the American
Medical Association. Say what you will, they’ve sure got a lot of
people there with fancy initials after their names. Here’s a pro-irradiation video by the American Council on Science and Health.
Irradiation does not leave traces of radioactive material in food. (To
the disappointment of nine-year-old boys everywhere, you will not glow
in the dark if you eat it.) According to a FAQ by the University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Education Group,
“Irradiation by gamma rays, X-rays and accelerated electrons under
controlled conditions does not make food radioactive. Just as the
airport scanner doesn’t make your suitcase radioactive, this process is
not capable of inducing radioactivity in any material, including food.”
Irradiation proponents say that the nutritional value of the food is
largely unchanged. (They maintain that thiamine levels are reduced but
not enough to cause deficiency.)
• Irradiation can be used to
prolong the shelf-life of certain fruits and vegetables. Irradiated
strawberries last weeks longer than un-irradiated ones. (Why you would
want weeks-old strawberries is another question entirely.)
use of irradiation could eliminate the need for chemicals to control
pests for certain crops. (You have to admit, this sounds good.)
Irradiation doesn’t make food perfectly safe. While it can reduce
microorganisms, it doesn’t entirely eliminate them. And while it
reduces bacteria levels, it’s not effective when it comes to viruses or
prions (which are responsible for Mad Cow Disease, and, as far as I can
tell, cannot be eliminated by God).
• Irradiated foods cost
more. The University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Group asserts that
irradiated meat and poultry runs 3 to 5 cents more per pound. In these
uncertain economic times, that premium may be enough to further put off
consumers who are already a bit spooked by radiation because of that
unfortunate accident at Three Mile Island or that Cold War song by
Sting. But there may be other reasons.
Irradiation opponents see it as a Band-Aid solution to huge problems in
our food system that need to be fixed, not covered over. They assert
that the best way to prevent food-borne illnesses and deaths is to
clean up the dirty, unsafe, and inhumane conditions at factory farms
and slaughterhouses that are ultimately responsible for large-scale
contaminations. Check out this clip of Lou Dobbs calling for FDA heads on a platter.
Opponents of irradiation say that a diet high in irradiated foods may
not be safe in the long run because it damages the quality of food.
They further assert that the FDA’s approval for irradiation was based
on flawed and inadequate studies. For more information, check out the Organic Consumer Association’s Stop Food Irradiation Project.
uses a lot of energy and could create enormous environmental hazards.
Here’s a cheery list of scary incidents at irradiation facilities
provided by Public Citizen [PDF]. (Chant the Nuclear Industry Mantra: “There was no danger to the public at any time. There was no danger …”)
may not be suitable for all foods. Allegedly, it makes tomatoes mushy.
So, that nuked burger you just ordered might be safer, but the
Salmonella-infected tomato slice on it could still get you.
Would I feed my own children irradiated hamburgers, albeit well-cooked ones?
I’d like to say a resounding no, and that I only feed my family local
and organic foods all the time, I can’t pull that off. (Did you hear
that? It’s my Superwoman tiara clanging to the floor. Damn! It just
rolled under the fridge …) It is highly likely that my family is
already eating irradiated foods whether I like it or not. While you’d
think that a large radura logo
would be required for each and every irradiated food, consumers now
have to squint to find he words “treated with irradiation” or “treated
by irradiation” on the ingredient list on labels. Foods that are not
entirely irradiated but contain irradiated ingredients (such as spices)
do not have to disclose them. Restaurants and school lunch programs do
not have to disclose that they are using irradiated foods. Although I
don’t think that protecting our little ones from E.coli-infected CAFO
burgers is a bad thing, for the love of God, we need to be informed.
The FDA once proposed relaxing labeling regulations
to permit the term “pasteurization” when it comes to certain irradiated
foods. I’m no scientist (a phrase that certainly would make my high
school chemistry teacher bust a gut laughing), but since when does
pasteurization involve Cobalt 60?
So, Carla, if you have any
appetite left at all, go have a well-cooked egg. Once your blood sugar
(and pressure) return to normal, do some soul searching and perhaps make some calls.
With fond memories of Caesar salads,
You mentioned milk: It hasn’t been approved for irradiation.
Pasteurization (the old-fashioned kind that involves heat), in my
opinion, is still the way to go. If you want the scoop on raw milk,
check out this column by my esteemed colleague, Umbra Fisk.
Thoughts on Irradiated Food
By Lou Bendrick
Grist Magazine, Oct 5, 2009
Straight to the Source