The Case for More
I was pleased to see a recent NRC blog that highlighted the value of irradiating food to eliminate the harmful pathogens in our food supply that all too regularly cause massive outbreaks of illness and even deaths. They were responding to news of recent outbreaks of illness traced to lettuce from Mexico served at the major US restaurant chains of Olive Garden and Red Lobster--only the latest of many such outbreaks in many parts of the US over the years
I have been following this issue for a number of years, and even I was surprised at the statistics they cited--that, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 1 in 6 Americans falls ill each year from tainted food. Most of these food-related illnesses, of course, prove to be minor, but 128,000 people are hospitalized each year and 3,000 die.
That is far too many, and it should be unnecessary. While some say that the solution is higher standards of cleanliness in the food production chain--and I cannot disagree with that--I do not think that is a complete answer. The food chain is too far-flung and too distributed for the traditional methods of oversight to work effectively all the time.
With food irradiation, we have an option to provide a much higher guarantee of safety than we can possibly achieve by rules and inspections alone. It's been proven safe, and contrary to what many people think, it has been in use for a number of years for certain food products, such as spices.
It seems, however, that expanding the use of irradiation to other foods has run into repeated roadblocks due to misconceptions about what irradiation does to food. The NRC blog tries to address that issue. I am glad to see them weighing in on this issue, but I can say from personal experience that they have a steep climb ahead of them.
I have previously told the story of what might be termed my ANS irradiated cheese caper--how, in 2001-2, when I served as president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS), I thought I would bring to America the cheeses from France that we cannot import! I would ask for only a one-time exemption, I offered to post signs at the reception to remind pregnant women and others with health concerns not to eat the irradiated cheese, and I would engage the help of Congressman Joe Barton. Piece of cake, I thought (or perhaps I should say, piece of cheese).
As I reported, it was all to no avail. The FDA would not budge. In the end, we held the ANS reception sans les fromages de France.
I tell this cautionary tale because I know the challenges that are faced by the efforts to improve the safety of our food through irradiation. I am hopeful that, over time, the opinion of the public will change, the voice of the NRC will be influential, and that the FDA will begin to approve the irradiation of more foods. I only hope that it will not take more disease outbreaks and more deaths for this to happen.