Oh, the food supply, the food supply. It’s impossible to miss the media stories on the risks of food-borne illnesses like salmonella and E. coli. Meats, eggs, fruits and vegetables always seem to be the most insidious culprits. (But that Little Debbie snack cake, you’ll be relieved to know, is on the safe list.)
We’ve all heard that it’s important to diligently wash our produce and thoroughly cook all meats. But more and more, we’re hearing that these measures just aren’t enough. In contrast to two washing practices, a recent study organized by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service shows that irradiation kills more than 99% of many microbes, including salmonella and E. coli. Irradiation was compared with three minutes’ submergence in water and three minutes of cleaning with an unidentified chemical treatment. The water bath was ineffective at killing or removing E. coli, while the chemical treatment didn’t have significant effect on E. coli in tested spinach leaves and was not quite 90% effective when it came to lettuce.
Studies show that certain disease-causing microbes are masters at playing hide-and-go seek with such chemical sanitizers. These bacteria can make their way inside the leaves of lettuce, spinach and other vegetables and fruit, where surface treatments cannot reach. In addition, microbes can organize themselves into tightly knit communities called biofilms that coat fruits and vegetables and protect the bacteria from harm.
Since 1999, the FDA has been reviewing irradiation and approving its use in steps. As things stand right now, many foods, including meats, produce, fresh shell eggs, wheat flour, and juices, can be irradiated but must be labeled as such (with the exception of spices). It’s important to note that schools and restaurants, however, may serve irradiated food without offering notice. A comforting thought as you send junior off to school.
The irradiation process involves using high energy gamma rays. The short wavelengths and high frequencies result in virtually no heat but ionizing radiation, which kills bacteria and insects and extends shelf life. The controversy surrounding irradiation revolves around what else the gamma rays kill. Critics contend that the process damages antioxidants, essential fatty acids, protein and other nutrients. Others add less than savory comments about the change in taste and texture of irradiated food. More contested is the possible creation of carcinogenic substances known as cyclobutanones as well as other damaging carcinogens, including mutagenic compounds found in lab animal experiments.
Finally, critics of irradiated food claim that the real agenda behind the irradiation push can be found in disgusting food (particularly meat) processing that would make Upton Sinclair lose his lunch. Cleaner, slower processing with better oversight would result in cleaner meats and other foods. (Oh, these are details for another post – or another website period.) Knowing what we know, we would agree with the processing assessment and general criticism of irradiation. The problems we create for ourselves in this modern age….
When it comes to irradiation, we’re going to take a pass. (Now excuse us while we dry heave.)