How Much of Your Food is Being Nuked Before it Hits the Shelf?
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India alone grows 1,000 varieties of mangoes in such delectable variations as the sweet, orange-skinned Alphonso, the Bombay Green and the Bangalora. Here in the U.S., we rarely see more than one lonely variety at the local supermarket, but that's all about to change. Soon consumers will be able to sample the sweet and tart nectars of many more imported fruits and vegetables from Thailand, India and Mexico piled high in the produce section. But there's a catch: this fruit will arrive irradiated.
Shoppers may not be the wiser. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules in place since 1986 have required the radura -- a symbol for irradiation that resembles a flower in a broken circle -- on placards in front of produce displays or on packaged food like ground beef, along with the statement: "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation."
But last April, the FDA proposed a revision to those rules. Food which had undergone irradiation, but not "material change," would no longer have to bear the radura logo and companies could replace the word "irradiation" with the more consumer-friendly "pasteurized" or something else innocuous. Public comment on the current proposed change closes in early July.
Industry insiders argue that irradiation is a necessary answer to food-borne illness such as last year's E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak in California-grown spinach, which left three dead and sickened 200 others. It was the 20th such outbreak in lettuce or spinach since 1995. "I look at it from a unique perspective," says Dennis Olson, the director of the irradiation program at Iowa State University.
"All of our bagged spinach and lettuce and fresh-cut produce goes through a metal detector. How common is it to find metal? It almost never happens. How often does E. coli 0157:H7 happen? Almost never. [But] if that produce had been irradiated there would have been none."
A commitment to public health is certainly in the best interests of consumer and industry, but a burgeoning worldwide market plays an equally important role in the sudden interest in irradiation. One third of commercial spices in the U.S. are already subject to irradiation -- treatment by gamma rays or electron beams to kill pathogens -- as are some 15 to 18 million pounds of ground beef, according to Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council.
In 2000, the FDA reported that 97 million pounds of food products were irradiated annually. But, excluding spices, these products are only available in limited quantity: the occasional hospital meal or the odd chicken breast in a Florida supermarket. Irradiation in the world of fresh produce is still something new, and it's opening the door to American imports of litchi (a red fruit similar to a grape) and longan (a round fruit resembling an eyeball when shelled) from Thailand as well as new mangoes from India.
"I was just in India," says Eustice, "and there are close to 20 irradiation facilities going up [across Asia] in the next 12 months. That may be a conservative estimate." In March of 2006, when President Bush was in India cementing a civilian nuclear agreement, he found time to promote the import of Indian mangoes. Both decisions are likely hinged on the rocketing Indian economy, the fastest-growing in the world according to Goldman Sachs. And irradiation is the strange mistress in the middle.
At a press conference in New Delhi, Bush spoke out in favor of lifting the 17-year ban on mango imports from India, imposed because of heavy pesticide concerns. "The U.S. is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes," he said. It's also looking forward to exporting its own beans, like lentils and chickpeas, to India, as part of the trade agreement.
The market for more exotic foods is exploding, in part because America is home to such a large number of immigrants and because consumers, influenced by their travels and cultural experiences, are demanding more variety.
But traditional bananas and pineapples will cross the borders, too, thanks to irradiation. It's cheaper for American companies to import produce, says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. In Latin America where an increasing amount of the American food supply is grown, "you can use pesticides that are illegal in the U.S. and there are [fewer] environmental standards," Hauter says. "The food industry's plan is moving to the global south."
Irradiation would help that plan along immensely, by delaying ripening in fruits like bananas and avocados and inhibiting sprouting in root vegetables, such as onions and potatoes. Irradiation prevents mushroom caps from opening, and even delicate fruits like strawberries benefit from radioactive zapping, according to information offered by the Food Irradiation Processing Alliance.
Because the process "reduces spoilage bacteria and molds ... irradiated strawberries can last a week in the refrigerator without developing mold." Companies could also use cheaper, slower means of transportation to get their perishable items to grocery stores.
And the FDA says there is no reason why irradiated foods shouldn't become the norm. The process is allowed in nearly 40 countries and is endorsed by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Medical Association.
But even with all the support, the process hasn't penetrated the U.S. market, despite industry claims that consumers are indifferent to its use. "Numerous university studies show that support for irradiated foods can reach as high as 85 to 90 percent when accurate information is provided," says the Minnesota Beef Council.
Just three years ago, irradiation looked like a losing proposition. San Diego-based food irradiation provider Surebeam had declared bankruptcy, closing four plants nationwide and making it difficult for companies like Omaha Steaks who wanted ground beef irradiated to find a local provider. Dennis Olson was then SureBeam's vice president for food technology, and blamed unnecessary expansion and high overhead on the company's demise.
Today, the majority of the 45 U.S. irradiation facilities sterilize medical products, not food, says Richard Hunter, CEO and president of Food Technology Service (FTS), an irradiation facility in Mulberry, Florida. His company does both. The boxed beef patties or Band-Aids are loaded onto carriers and they pass through a field of radiation whose maximum dose (in the case of food) is set by the FDA. "A truckload of frozen beef patties may take 30 minutes" to irradiate, Hunter says.
Hunter claims it's an environmentally responsible process. Nuclear power plants use cobalt-59 as an adjustor or control rod, which is converted to radioactive cobalt-60 during the nuclear reaction process. This cobalt-60, contained in pellets, is then placed in rods for the irradiation facility, grouped with hundreds of other rods surrounded by six-foot-thick concrete walls. Cobalt-60 is also used in Gamma Knife surgery to remove brain tumors.
"That's a usable byproduct instead of waste," says Hunter. He adds that new pellets are spaced with old ones within the long, thin, stainless steel rods, so that they are "isolated from the environment for 50 years." By the time the cobalt-60 pellets are replaced, he says, "They are virtually not radioactive."
But Food & Water Watch, the most vocal group against widespread irradiation and the FDA proposal to soften labeling rules, sees no environmental silver lining. The group points out that irradiation experts and spokespeople often move back and forth between government and the industry trough.
Hunter, for example, resigned as deputy health officer of the Florida Department of Health for his six-figure job as president of FTS. But he was advocating for the process long before he made the switch, the group notes. "In 1998," says a Food & Water Watch report, "he went so far as to write a letter to Florida residents promoting food irradiation, a letter that Food Technology Service since began using in its marketing material."
Opponents say the meat industry wants to use irradiation as a quick fix to poor sanitation in 200-birds-per-minute slaughterhouse lines and that the technology is being pushed through without proper testing.
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says, "Irradiation is a high-tech end-of-the-line solution to contamination problems that can and should be addressed earlier. Consumers prefer to have no filth on meat than to have filth sterilized by irradiation."
Such groups as the Organic Trade Association (OTA) are alarmed by greater potential irradiation allowances, too. Since the late 1990s, OTA has opposed federal efforts to increase irradiation, especially on certified organic foods. "Food irradiation is a synthetic pro-cess that has never been allowed in organic production," says OTA. "The long-term effects of irradiation are still un-known, and irradiation is not a panacea to food safety concerns."
Iowa State's Olson says all safety research was completed by the 1980s and "while there is still some continuing work, nothing [negative] has been shown on a consistent basis." In fact, astronauts have been eating irradiated food since the 1970s, increasing its respectability.
But the reason they eat it has more to do with zero gravity than nutrition. The irradiation process removes the fluid from meat so it can be heated and eaten without mess while astronauts circle the planet. But what may be appropriate foodstuff for a traveler on an infrequent voyage to the moon raises far more serious concerns for the majority of the population facing unidentified irradiated foods in all segments of the supermarket.
"It doesn't bode well for the kind of food we want to eat," Hauter says. "To use a euphem-ism like 'pasteurized' is not the equivalent of millions of chest X-rays passing through [the plant] cells and breaking those bonds. The truth is, we don't know the long-term health effects of a mostly irradiated diet."
The food supply already undergoes a lot of unsettling-sounding processes in the quest for consumer safety, says Hunter, and none of those processes are labeled. "Poison gas is used on fruits and vegetables to kill insect larvae," he says, "and organic acid rinses. Irradiation is obviously a scary word, but, for me, it's a badge of honor."
Brita Belli is managing editor of E Magazine.