Scheme to Irradiate Veggies May Have Problems--An Admission by Food Industrial Complex of Failure to Act on Root Causes of E. Coli and Salmonella Outbreaks

By Frank Pecarich
Retired Soil Scientist

Source of Article:


"The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with, but whether it is the same problem you had last year."John Foster Dulles

U.S. consumers are more concerned about the safety of the food they eat than they are about the war in Iraq or global warming, according to the recent Center for Food Integrity’s (CFI) annual Consumer Trust Survey. Fewer than 20 percent of those surveyed strongly agreed that government agencies are doing a good job ensuring the safety of the food we eat.

Since the Monterey County 2006 spinach E. coli 0157:H7 outbreak two years ago, the food poisoning stories from pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella, and listeria keep hitting the front page, often on a daily basis. During those two years, we have warned the consumer that this issue of food borne pathogens would not be going away anytime soon. The reason we have been confident of that prediction is that the food producing industry has not done anything meaningful to take the danger away from the consumer.

In fact, much of what has gone on has been a public relations smokescreen. We have in previous articles illustrated some examples of how the food production industry has sought to convince the consumer that proper corrective measures are being taken to insure the health and safety of the public. Many of those such as fencing off fields to prevent wandering animals from getting into the fields or a California Department of Fish and Game program asking hunters to gather deer and other wild animal feces while hunting have been almost comical.

The last few weeks has brought the news that the FDA and the vegetable industrial complex have thrown in the towel in cleaning up food production practices by pushing towards the right to irradiate foods such as leafy greens. For me this is prima facie evidence that growers, packers and distributors realize that the essential corrections to this problem involve actions they do not wish to consider or undertake. Their solution then is to zap the pathogen critters with microwaves and call it good.

There is a noticeable lack of enthusiasm for this idea coming from the grower-packer industry. For example, Monterey, California-based Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc. is in no rush to adopt the technology. “As with all technologies having to do with improving the safety of product, it’s one of several areas that we’re looking into,” said Ray De Riggi, Dole President. “The one problem that has been with irradiation is that it had a tendency to destroy the product, but evidently as this technology advances that’s not as true as it was in the past.”

FDA requires that lettuce and spinach that have been irradiated will have the logo "radura" on their packaging, along with the phrase "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation".

Stephen Hedges in the Chicago Tribune writes that this is the latest example of the FDA using a technical fix to treat a biological problem. He suggests that these irradiation decisions including approving irradiation on meat, approving the application of carbon monoxide gas to keep meat red, approving the sale of meat and dairy products from cloned cows — "has broadened the philosophical divide between food manufacturers, which generally favor the expanded use of such technology, and many food safety and organic food groups that oppose it."

Nutrients in the vegetable affected by irradiation

Along with others, Science Policy Analyst at the Centre for Food Safety, Bill Freese, has argued that irradiation will rob fresh spinach of some of its essential nutrients -- phytonutrients -- and he claims the technology avoids tackling the problem at its source. "Irradiation is not the solution to food-borne illness," said Freese. "In fact, it serves to distract attention from the unsanitary conditions of industrial agriculture that create the problem in the first place."

Even in its announcement of the leafy greens irradiation plan, the FDA acknowledged, and was reported by WebMD, that irradiation of spinach does indeed affect levels of two phytonutrients, folate and vitamin A.

Other groups have said that irradiation lowers nutritional value and can create unsafe chemicals, as well as ruin taste. Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch called the FDA ruling "a total cop-out". She told the New York Times that: "They don't have the resources, the authority or the political will to really protect consumers from unsafe food."

Wenonah Hauter, Executive Director for Food & Water Watch in Washington, D.C. has said “Nearly two years after a major E. coli outbreak was linked to California spinach, it is unbelievable that the FDA's first action on is this issue is to turn to irradiation rather than focus on how to prevent contamination of these crops. This just illustrates once again how misplaced this agency's priorities really are. Instead of beefing up its capacity to inspect food facilities or test food for contamination, all the FDA has to offer consumers is an impractical, ineffective and very expensive gimmick like irradiation.”

Irradiation is not a globally popular alternative

While irradiation may be slowly gaining consumer acceptance in the US and several other countries, the technology has been slow to get support within many parts of Europe. To date, about 50 countries have approved about 60 products to be irradiated, with the US, South Africa, the Netherlands, Thailand and France among the leaders in adopting the technology.

However, regulations on food irradiation in the European Union are currently not fully harmonized. EU Directive 1999/2/EC establishes a framework for controlling irradiated foods, their labeling and importation, while EU Directive 1999/3 establishes an initial positive list of foods which may be irradiated and traded freely between member states.

So far the positive list has only one food category - dried aromatic herbs, spices and vegetable seasonings. Some countries, such as Belgium, France, the Netherlands and the UK, allow other foods to be irradiated. To be sure, the use of irradiated food is controversial at best and could harm the global marketing of US vegetables.

As a scientist I am still assessing this proposed solution to killing pathogens before they get to your plate. I believe the bigger issue is how the consumer will relate to this solution and the answers to that question are just beginning to trickle in. My guess is that the vegetable industry will have to employee even more PR specialists to get this idea swallowed by the public. The difficulty of that PR sell is being expressed now on the Internet. As one wag at a food safety blog put it, “At last! Now I can eat my spinach in the dark!”

Frank Pecarich retired from the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the US Bureau of Reclamation in 1987. During his 26 year federal career he worked as a soil scientist with the USDA on the now- published Soil Survey for Monterey County. He lives in Ventura County.

Related articles that have been published by the California Progress Report by Mr. Pecarich can be found under the topic of Food Safety.

Posted on August 28, 2008



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