Going nuclear over bad food

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E. coli cases revive calls for irradiation

December 19, 2006|By Mcclatchy-Tribune

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Two high-profile E. coli outbreaks this year have some in the food business wondering - once again - if it's time to go nuclear.

For decades, many food safety experts have argued that irradiation - zapping food with high-energy rays to kill microorganisms - could avert hundreds of deaths and perhaps millions of illnesses each year.

But for just as long, federal regulators and food retailers have been leery of bringing the technology to market.

Despite exhaustive reviews by federal scientists and endorsements by public health and medical groups around the world, irradiation by its very name conjures up images that are anything but wholesome: nuclear fallout, for one. That imagery, combined with some lingering uncertainties about irradiation's effects on food, has helped grass-roots activists make a potent case against it.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiation as a disinfectant for a limited range of foods, including spices and ground beef. But a food industry petition to greatly expand that approval to include many ready-to-eat products - fresh bagged greens, for instance - has been awaiting review by the agency for more than seven years.

Now, with both government officials and the produce industry feeling pressure to respond to the recent outbreaks, irradiation is again up for debate. Jeff Barach, vice president of the Food Products Association, the trade group that brought the 1999 irradiation petition, said he had for months been unable to get an audience with FDA officials - until September's outbreak of E. coli in spinach from Salinas Valley, Calif.

"We all of a sudden got a meeting" with the head of the department that is evaluating the petition, Barach said. He said that he offered to limit the scope of the request to fewer products - to focus only on fresh packaged vegetables, lunch meats, and a few other items - in exchange for a quicker decision from the agency.

"I think we've made some good progress," he said.

An FDA spokesman said the agency can't comment on the petition's status. Members of California's fresh greens industry recently have been discussing irradiation - among other strategies - in their continuing negotiations on food safety standards, according to Trevor Suslow, a specialist in perishable produce at the University of California, Davis, who has been present at some of the sessions.

One appeal of irradiation to the produce industry has to do with the difficulty of pinpointing the source of contamination after illness from foodborne disease. By the time someone gets sick, there is a good chance the offending bacteria have died off. So, farmers and food processors - and federal investigators - can't tell where safeguards failed.

Irradiation introduces the prospect of a final "kill step," for fresh produce, an additional layer of protection if other precautions fail. The high-energy rays can penetrate packaging, making it possible to do a final disinfection after, say, spinach leaves have been washed and sealed in a bag. The technology can also kill pathogens nestled where disinfectants like chlorine don't always reach: in a crevice in a leaf of spinach, for instance.

Recent studies have shown that the technology will reduce populations of common foodborne disease pathogens by at least 99.9 percent without hurting the quality of most fresh produce, according to Brendan Niemira, a lead scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety Intervention Technologies lab in Pennsylvania.

Irradiation disinfects food by damaging the DNA of microorganisms, rendering them unable to reproduce. The most common irradiation machines employ the high-energy gamma rays given off by radioactive cobalt.

Newer alternatives use X-ray and electron acceleration techniques that do not require radioactive material. Units suitable for mass food processing cost between $4 million and $8 million, according to executives at two U.S. food irradiation firms.

Were the irradiation of ready-to-eat produce to be approved, it would likely be the target of fierce campaigning by some public advocacy groups.

"I would characterize our view on irradiation as calling for a moratorium," said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

In 1999, when the USDA was considering whether to allow irradiation and genetic engineering in certified organic foods, Kimbrell's group helped build strong opposition that included 300,000 public comments. The agency decided to keep both technologies out of the production of organic foods.

Kimbrell says that research results don't provide proof of the safety of irradiation. He also argues that its widespread use would lead the food industry to be sloppy in other areas.

Michael Pollan, a writer on food and agriculture, raises another objection: If a costly technology like irradiation becomes a standard step in food processing, small producers are likely be hurt more than large ones who are in a better position to absorb the expense. That's particularly galling, he says, since the national-scale outbreaks of foodborne illness that tend to prompt the use of such technologies are usually linked to big operations.

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