Friday, May 9, 2014

Food Irradiation:

Slow Progress

 When I was president of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) in 2001-2, I got interested in food irradiation.  I knew that unaged, unpasteurized cheeses, which I had enjoyed on trips to Europe, were not permitted for sale or distribution in the United States because of concerns about listeria, a bacteria that can be harmful, particularly to pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems.  I launched an effort to try to get temporary, one-time approval to irradiate the cheese to serve at a reception at an ANS conference, hoping that might ultimately lead to full approval for such products.

That effort was ultimately unsuccessful, but I have continued to monitor the status of food irradiation from time to time.

Therefore, I was very interested in recent news that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) last month approved the use of irradiation for crustaceans (shrimp, lobster and crabs).  As a side note, given last winter's cold weather has apparently decimated the supply of crabs in the Chesapeake Bay, I anticipate that a lot of the crabs in this area will come from elsewhere, likely making this FDA approval particularly timely for the Washington-Baltimore area.

So, the approval for irradiation of shellfish was the good news.  But, as a recent article on food irradiation in the Washington Post points out, it took 13 years to get that approval, and the last approval before that, for spinach and iceberg lettuce in 2008, took nearly 10 years.  That's the bad news.  Or at least some of the bad news.

The other bad news is the continuing efforts of small groups to fight the further use of food irradiation.  Their arguments are mostly hypothetical, minor, preventable, inconsistent, or just plain wrong.  Furthermore, a lot of the arguments against food irradiation are similar to arguments against the pasteurization of milk.  I wondered if there might be any messages in the story of how pasteurization came to be accepted.  Looking at this history, it took a combination of the endorsement by groups like the American Medical Association, an unfortunate typhoid epidemic in New York that killed thousands, and several decades.

While I certainly hope that it will not take such a tragedy to gain acceptance for food irradiation, the public should realize that, in fact, there have been illnesses and deaths from food contamination that would have been prevented had the food been irradiated.  In fact, the last large food poisoning incident occurred less than a year ago and sickened over 600 people

The other thing I learned from the Washington Post article was how very confusing and illogical our food laws are.  For example, the rules for indicating that a food has been irradiated (using the radura symbol shown at the left) are different for single food items, like shrimp, and for packaged food products, like frozen dinners.  Irradiation is treated as a food additive, when it is really a process, like canning or freezing, and not an additive at all.  Furthermore, it is considered an adulterant, which subjects it to the case-by-case approval process that has resulted in such long delays for approval.  This should be contrasted with the case for salt, for example, which is in the class of foods that are "generally regarded as safe."  As a result, salt can be used unlimited amounts in any food product, even though we know today that large amounts of salt are harmful to the health of a significant fraction of the population.

On a personal level, perhaps the most enjoyable fact I learned from the Washington Post article was that irradiated ground beef is available on the retail consumer market.  Only one supermarket chain was mentioned in the article, Wegman's.  Two mail-order providers are also mentioned, Schwan's Home Service and Omaha Steaks.  Although Wegman's is not a national chain, there happens to be one not too far from us, so on a recent foray, we picked up a package to sample.  It was clearly marked, but the store gave no indication of why they were selling it.

The Wegman's blog, however, provides just the kind of rationale that made me interested in irradiated cheese.  The blog has a very clear and open explanation of why Wegman's chose to sell irradiated ground beef--recommendations for food safety call for cooking hamburger to 160 degrees F, but a lot of their customers prefer a rarer and juicier burger.  (They sell unirradiated ground beef as well, so there is freedom of choice.)  While the Wegman's blog doesn't mention it, the reason they sell irradiated ground beef and not irradiated whole cuts of beef is that the bacterial contamination is limited to the surface of whole cuts of meat.  For ground beef, any contamination is spread throughout the product.  Hence, it must be heated to the center to destroy any bacteria. 

It struck me that this argument is very much in line with my interest in irradiated cheese.  It allows customers to enjoy a product with less taste-changing processing and greater safety.  What's not to like? 

Now that we've discovered a source, it looks like we will be able to enjoy rare, irradiated hamburger in our home.  Maybe there is hope yet for irradiated cheese.  I only hope I don't have to wait another 20 years for that.


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