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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Food Porn, Food Fight and the Quest for Food Safety – Is Irradiation the Silver Bullet?

Last week Lenny Russo, a St. Paul chef and restaurateur (my guess is that food porn would apply here – "Lenny Russo is passionately dedicated to Midwestern cuisine") posted the following Op-ed: Tainted food calls for changes in farm practices for contamination – To fight E. coli contamination, start by looking at the environment of animals.

Chef Lenny’s solution to the nearly 30,000,000 pounds of E. coli-contaminated meat recalled in 2007, and the hundreds sickened, is to feed cows grass and have them live in more healthful environments.  His feelings on irradiation of meat – “It is somewhat akin to the cigarette smoker who would rather wait to develop cancer and then undergo treatment for it rather than just quit smoking.” Come on Chef Lenny – Really?

Michael Osterholm’s clubbed (Food Fight!) Chef Lenny in his Op-ed in today’s paper – E. coli is simply the enemy; we should treat it as nothing less – Irradiation is the only way we can confidently say the meat we eat is safe.

Dr. Osterholm makes the solid points – “While maintaining good agricultural practices is important for animal health and environmental reasons, no credible research has identified a magic wand that a farmer can use to significantly lower the E. coli in our meat supply. And there is never a justification for failing to meet the highest sanitation standards possible in our meat processing plants. But we must realize that there is simply no way to ensure that microscopic contamination of feces on the carcass doesn’t happen when the animal is disemboweled.”

So, what are the facts?

Irradiating food can make it safer by killing disease-causing bacteria, but most shoppers still shy away from these products. However, experts in 2004 made the case for irradiated foods in The New England Journal of Medicine. Linda Greene, testing director for Food & Sensory Sciences at the Yonkers, N.Y.-based Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, summarizes what you need to know about this process.

What does irradiating meat do? – Bombarding meat with high-frequency energy inactivates the DNA of any illness-causing microorganisms that may be present. As a result, they can’t reproduce and make you sick. So, exactly what is Irradiation?

Does the meat become radioactive? – No, it does not.

To be safe, do I need to buy irradiated meat? – Choosing irradiated meat reduces but does not eliminate the risk of food-borne illness.

Does irradiated meat taste different? – When presented with pairs of food, our trained tasters were able to detect the irradiated beef or chicken 66 of 72 times because it had a very slight "off" taste. But the average consumer may not notice the difference.

So, here in my view is what is really important.  In a CIDRAP article – Food Irradiation – An Underused Boon to Food Safety

An estimated 76 million cases of foodborne illnesses are recorded each year, resulting in more than 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths. About 73,000 people, many children, get E. coli infection every year and 61 die from it. About 5 to 10 percent of school-age children infected with E. coli develop hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), the principal cause of kidney failure in children. E. coli infection is often linked to undercooked ground beef. Here is the kicker:

  • When ground beef is irradiated, at least 99.99 percent of E. coli and other harmful foodborne bacteria are killed.
  • Nearly every major science and health agency supports the consumption of irradiated food. These include the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the American Medical Association, and the American Dietetic Association. More than 40 years of research on food irradiation has repeatedly shown it to be safe.
  • The CDC estimates that if just 50 percent of the meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the number of foodborne illnesses would be reduced annually by 900,000 and deaths by 352.

More support for irradiation of meat can be found at the Journal of Infectious Diseases – Irradiation Pasteurization of Solid Foods: Taking Food Safety to the Next Level. And at the CIDRAP website on Irradiation.

  Those facts aside, my friend Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program weighed in – New England Journal of Medicine Article on Food Irradiation Ignores Scientific Uncertainty

She calls irradiation “this controversial food technology uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria and extend shelf life.” Her concerns seem to stem from “the lack of conclusive evidence that irradiated food can be consumed without long-term detrimental health effects….” And, that “Osterholm’s glowing endorsement of irradiation should not be considered without a note about his sources of funding. Two of the three major irradiation companies, SureBeam and Ion Beam Applications, have financially supported his research center. And Donald Thayer, author of an accompanying pro-irradiation column, has financial ties to CFC Logistics, which runs an irradiation facility in Pennsylvania, and Zero Mountain, which once planned to build an irradiation facility.”

You know when a consumer group (that lives on controversy to feed donations) complains that a public servant is somehow tainted by research dollars, all complaints need to be questioned.

So where are we? Against irradiation – 1) some people do not like the taste, 2) might have harmful effects that we do not know about, and there is no research to suspect there is any.  For irradiation – 1) lives can be saved now.  I choose saving lives now.  For more information on irradiation, see CIDRAP’s response to Public Citizen.

  • Bix

    I would like to see more cows grass-fed and allowed to pasture. I hope that the demand for pastured beef will eventually change the way livestock is raised and handled.
    I don’t believe that will happen overnight (if at all). In the meantime we need to employ techniques that will improve the safety of our sometimes contaminated meat supply. Radiation is one technique. I don’t prefer it because it doesn’t encourage a change in practices upstream. But as it saves lives and reduces hardship … today … with our current environment of underinspection and factory farming … I find it difficult to argue against.

  • matt

    Bix, I agree with you to a point. We know irradiated food loses seome vitamin content as a result of the process. (as do cooking and time) There are bound to be other changes that we can’t measure, that may have unintended consequences. It’s like beta carotene suppliment pills – we’ve known for years that this substance fights cancer, but the suppliments don’t have the effect that eating it in real food form do. Why? We don’t know yet. To think that we know everything about nutrition based upon what we can see and measure today seems arrogant to me. Plus, with radiation produce DOES last longer. What’s the downside of that? Produce is supposed to rot. It’s nature’s way of letting you know that it’s not good for you anymore. We know that nutritional value of produce declines rapidly when harvested. With radiation it seems we’ll have food that looks perectly good long after the nutritional value has dwindled.
    Lastly, as you pointed out, we’re removing any incentives to clean up the act upstream.
    There are many arguments for smaller, decentralized agriculture, and grass fed beef is just one small piece of that puzzle. I think this is the direction we need to go, and I’m doing everything I can to do just that.
    I know that slow food, localvores, farmer’s markets – these account for a drop in the bucket compared to agribusiness, but it’s growing every day.
    I won’t actively try to stop irradiated food; you won’t see me writing my representatives or leading a protest – I DO see the upsides, but I really just want no part of it and think it’s a tail wagging the dog situation.