Irradiation takes bite out of food safety fears

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By Richard Feldman

Posted: February 17, 2009

Last summer, we endured the largest foodborne-illness outbreak in more than a decade. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration whirled in circles trying to solve the mystery of where the salmonella contamination originated. Initially, the outbreak was linked to tomatoes, and then to jalapeņo peppers when the discovery of the specific outbreak-producing strain of salmonella was discovered in the peppers. Mystery solved.

But wait. Peppers did not account for all the cases. Tomatoes or even cilantro may still have been one of the culprits after all, said the CDC. We may never know exactly what produce was responsible and where the contamination took place. Investigations can be difficult.

Now we are faced with a second nationwide salmonella outbreak, this time in peanut products traced to Peanut Corp. of America. It has sickened and killed people in 43 states and necessitated one of the largest food recalls in history. The company appears guilty of distributing products known to be infected; but surprisingly it was not required to report the contamination to the FDA. Reporting requirements must be enacted, and the FDA should be given increased authority including broader inspection and product removal powers.

Nationally each year, 76 million people become ill, 325,000 are hospitalized and 5,000 die due to foodborne illnesses. Outbreaks are too common and are occurring on a larger scale.

There are many reasons for continued outbreaks. Food is massively distributed across the country and enormous amounts of produce are now imported. The magnitude of our food supply and its distribution has simply overwhelmed the capacity of our food-protection system.

But there is an underused and little-discussed measure that could greatly reduce the pathogens that cause foodborne illness: food irradiation. Sounds scary? Extensive research has shown that it is perfectly safe. Irradiation uses Colbalt-60 or an electron beam that doesn't involve a radioactive substance. With either method, the food does not become radioactive.

Food irradiation is endorsed by the FDA, the CDC, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the World Health Organization and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Irradiation is approved in 50 countries. But it is not fully utilized in the United States; it has limited approval for purposes including the elimination of pathogens from meats and some produce, and for the slowing of fruit and vegetable spoilage. You may already be eating irradiated foods. This process kills pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.

Although critics say otherwise, research shows that irradiation doesn't significantly affect food vitamin content and, with very few exceptions, doesn't affect the flavor or texture of food. And it won't appreciably add to the cost of food.

Critics also point to the dangers of radiolytic compounds created in the irradiation process. The FDA concluded that the amount and types of these radiolytic byproducts in food are not harmful, toxic or carcinogenic. In fact, irradiation causes much less chemical and nutrient change than cooking, canning or pasteurizing.

A century ago, the implementation of milk pasteurization was hotly debated. But with pasteurization, milk was no longer a source of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, diphtheria and streptococcal infections that killed thousands of children yearly.

Just as with pasteurization, irradiation could be used as the last step in a system to better assure a safe food supply. If the FDA would expand food-irradiation approval for the elimination of pathogens from fruits and vegetables (now limited to lettuce and spinach) and would promote universal irradiation of meats and other produce, we could add a critical layer of safety in addition to demanding good "farm to market" sanitation practices.

Feldman, M.D., is director of medical education and family medicine residency at St. Francis Hospitals and Health Centers and is a former state health commissioner.



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