MULBERRY, Fla. -- After years of scientific debate and commercial hesitation, the first fresh-food irradiation plant in the nation now stands ready for service and could begin shipping specially treated fruit as early as next week.
Many scientists at universities and federal agencies regard irradiation of food as a safe and efficient way to retard spoilage and kill organisms that cause illnesses such as salmonella and diarrhea.
Investors in the plant hope that an initial scheduled shipment of irradiated strawberries will soon be followed by other fruits and vegetables and, eventually, poultry and seafood.
"This is going to be a real bonanza for growers and consumers alike," said Sam Whitney, president of Vindicator of Florida, Inc., the company that operates the plant here. "All the surveys show that people want safer food, and this is a simple, proven process that kills the bacteria that can kill you. It's as important as pasteurization."
But opponents argue that "zapping the food supply," as one prominent medical researcher, Dr. Donald B. Louria, has called food irradiation, causes many more problems than it solves. Irradiation not only robs food of some nutritional value and requires the use of dangerous nuclear material, they say, but may also increase the risk of cancer and birth defects.
"There is enormous controversy over this in the scientific community," said Michael Colby, national director of Food and Water, a consumer advocacy group based in New York City that has led the campaign to block food irradiation.
"So why are we pushing forward with something unnecessary and easily replaceable? We seem to be recklessly promoting this frivolous technology, which is potentially dangerous to human health and threatens the environment."
Three states have acted on the issue. Maine has banned irradiated produce outright, and New York and New Jersey have imposed moratoriums on its sale.
For many years, limited amounts of spices and edible herbs have undergone the process at some of the 38 commercial irradiation plants around the country, which also sterilize medical equipment and supplies. But the opening of a $7 million plant in this small farming and phosphate mining town 30 miles east of Tampa marks the culmination of an audacious effort to apply the technology to fresh produce and meat.
Irradiation, a relatively simple process that has been known and studied for 40 years, does not make foods radioactive or leave a radioactive residue.
Advocates of irradiation say the process extends the commercial life of fresh foods for several weeks, thus enabling growers to reach new markets here and abroad.
"We're going to start doing tomatoes just as soon as those crops become ripe, and you will see that they will taste just like vine-ripened tomatoes," said Harley Everett, vice president of Vindicator.