Technology can stop nearly most food poisoning

Source of Article:

10:15 PM Mon, Feb 02, 2009 Andrew Smith  

An interesting NYT story reports the frustration that irradiation supporters feel every time they read of a massive food poisoning scare, like the peanut fiasco last month. The numbers are shocking:

The cases that rise to public attention are only the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year in the United States. The vast majority are mild, but the agency estimates there are 5,000 deaths from food-borne disease and 325,000 hospitalizations each year.

Irradiation could eliminate the vast majority of those poisonings, the Times reporst, but several factors have stopped us from irradiating a huge chunk of our food:

  • It may affect the taste of some food
  • It may affect the nutritional content of some food
  • It makes food more expensive
  • The name sounds scary to people who believe food should be "natural"

I have no idea whether there's any truth to the first two critiques, but I can't understand why there's any debate about them. It would seem pretty easy to settle the first question with blind taste tests and settle the second question with chemical analysis.

As for the third question, the Times did not provide any data about what irradiation currently costs or, more importantly, what it would cost if ramped up to full scale and done to most American food. I find it hard to believe that the costs of irradiation would outweigh the cost of 325,000 hospital stays per year, but I don't have any numbers one way or the other.

The final point is the most interesting to me. Tests have apparently shown pretty conclusively that the notion that irradiation is a hazard -- rather than a major safety advance -- is about as insane as the similarly popular notion 100 years ago that it was dangerous to pasteurize milk rather than dangerous not to pasteurize it.

If you tell people that food is irradiated, though, they won't buy it, even though it's healthier for them to do so.

Is that a good argument either for eliminating the labeling requirement or for forcing the irradiation of all food that benefits from it?

Or do individuals have the right to avoid scary sounding technology, even when society has to help pay the medical bills that arise from their choices?

In general, I tend to think that people should be free to make their own decisions, but it's hard for me to accept that free choice is more important than proven technology that could save nearly 5,000 American lives per year. To give you some perspective on how big a number that is, there have been slightly fewer than 4,200 U.S. casualties in Iraq since the war started in 2003.

So I'm torn.



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