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Food Irradiation No Magic Bullet Solution

07.aug.98, Douglas Powell, op-ed for the Globe and Mail

If we just zap them, then what's the problem? quipped an animal health company executive at a recent conference. That is zapping as in food irradiation the use of gamma rays from a radioactive source to reduce numbers of nasty bacteria in food. The problem? Among others it is the executive's unquestioning faith in food irradiation, an extension of the general belief in any sort of technological fix. In truth, there is no magic bullet. Following several high-profile outbreaks of foodborne illness including there call of 25 million pounds of ground beef by Hudson Foods last fall the U.S. government approved a three-year-old petition by a New Jersey company to allow the irradiation of red meat.

Food irradiation was endorsed more than 20 years ago by the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Agency. It has been advocated by a wide range of medical authorities. A Canadian industry group that includes farmers, ranchers and the Canadian Cattleman's Association petitioned the federal government in December to allow food purveyors to sell irradiated meat to immunocompromised clients, such as the elderly in long-term care facilities. A majority of consumer and advocacy groups now agree that irradiation is a safe process. For example, Kees de Winter, food officer for the Office of European Consumer Organizations in Brussels, recently told New Scientist magazine that, "Absolute safety doesn't exist, but to be honest, I've not seen any evidence of harm with this technology."

Nonetheless, companies are reluctant to market irradiated products, even though irradiation has been approved since the 1960s in Canada for wheat, flour, whole wheat flour, potatoes, onions, spices and seasoning mixes.They fear consumer backlash. But that, too, is changing. A 1997 survey conducted for the U.S. Food Marketing Institute found that 60 percent of consumers would buy irradiated foods for safety reasons, up from 36 percent in 1994. (Warning: surveys can be notoriously bad at predicting actual consumer behavior in the grocery aisles. Maybe that is why no U.S. producer is putting irradiated chicken in supermarkets, even though poultry has been irradiation -approved for about seven years).

Other problems? expense. Dr. Jim Dixon, a food microbiologist at Iowa State University, has been cited in several American media accounts as saying that irradiated red meat might cost an extra three to six cents a pound, producing about a 10-day extension of shelf-life. Taste is another. There is a fine balance between just enough irradiation to control pathogens and too much, which can turn food to mush. Each fruit, vegetable and meat is different. A spokesman for meatpacking giant IBP Inc. was quoted as saying, "We have concerns about the effect of irradiation on color and taste."

Then there is the biggest problem of all: trust. Food irradiation is, rightly or wrongly, associated with the nuclear industry, which has a track record of secrecy, unrealistic expectations (remember, nuclear energy in post-WWII was going to be so cheap and plentiful that it wouldn't need to be metered?) and lately, especially in Ontario, a perception of managerial incompetence. That association means that proponents will have to be especially careful not to oversell perceived, let alone actual, benefits.

And most have not. Irradiation is generally played as but another tool to bolster the safety of the food supply, along with enhanced inspection and gate-to-plate food safety management plans. But magic bullets have an all-too-human allure. Consumers must remember that even irradiated food requires refrigeration, safe handling and cooking. And producers and processors have to realize that zapping their way to food safety -- rather than addressing fundamental issues of food production and sanitation that allow new pathogens to emerge and flourish -- will not solve the problems of today. Irradiation can be an effective tool in the food safety arsenal, along with the numerous preventative practices that are being embraced by many in the food production system, from the farm through to the consumer.

Douglas Powell is an assistant professor in the dept. of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph.