Turning up the food safety debate

 

Fri Aug 29, 2008 2:40pm EDT

By Terri Coles

Source of Article:  http://www.reuters.com/article/reutersComService4/idUSDIS94610420080829?sp=true

 

TORONTO (Reuters) - Spinach, lettuce, sandwich meat -- the list of recalled foods continues to grow, and so does the debate on how to ensure the safety of what we eat. Last week, U.S. regulators turned the spotlight on a radiation treatment for food that turned the volume on the debate that much higher.

Irradiated food has been treated with doses of ionizing radiation to kill potentially harmful bacteria, pathogens and insects, including causes of food-borne illnesses like E. coli and salmonella, just as pasteurization does for milk and pressure cooking does for canned foods. The World Health Organization concluded in 1992 that properly irradiated foods didn't pose a human health risk.

Irradiation's most obvious benefit is its potential to reduce the number of food-borne illnesses suffered by American consumers, said Dr. Doug Powell ( barfblog.foodsafety.ksu.edu ), scientific director of the International Food Safety Network ( www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/ ) at Kansas State University.

Last week, the FDA approved the treatment for spinach and lettuce. The decision comes at a time when consumers are increasingly aware of -- and concerned about -- the myriad ways that the food they eat can make them sick.

There are about 76 million cases of food poisoning annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( here ). These include minor cases resulting in a few hours of sickness to more serious cases that can result in serious illness or death. A survey done by the Center for Food Integrity found that Americans worried more about the safety of their food than about global warming or the Iraq war, and less than 20 percent of those surveyed agreed that government agencies are doing a good job of ensuring food safety.

No wonder.

An E. coli outbreak tied to Jack in the Box in 1993 put food safety in the public eye, Powell said, and recent outbreaks like E. coli in spinach and listeria in Maple Leaf processed meats in Canada have kept it there.

Considering the number of outbreaks and recalls related to food-borne pathogens, we should explore tools like irradiation that could help reduce illnesses and deaths, Powell said.

But critics warn that irradiation is not a cure-all for the country's food safety issues. The Center for Science in the Public Interest ( cspinet.org/new/200808212.html ) said in a release that the FDA must adopt preventative measures that begin at the farm in order to control foodborne pathogens, including uniform standards and audits of written safety plans. And Food and Water Watch ( here adiation-despite-uncertainties-about-consumer-safety-article0821 2008 ), a non-profit consumer group, called irradiation a "gimmick" that illustrates the FDA's misplaced priorities towards preventing repeats of the E. coli spinach outbreak.

"Irradiation is a Band aid, not a cure. Allowing spinach and lettuce to be irradiated would simply mask unsafe production practices, while supplying lower quality, less nutritious and potentially hazardous food," said Wenonah Hauter, the group's executive director, in a statement. "Instead of pursuing irradiation, vegetable growers and processors should improve flawed sanitation practices and FDA should inspect vegetable-processing plants more thoroughly."

The food industry first sought FDA approval for irradiation eight years ago, in a proposal covering a variety of foods that was later modified to allow the regulatory agency to examine certain foods before others. Meat, poultry, spices and shellfish like oysters and clams have already received FDA approval for irradiation in the United States. NASA astronauts eat irradiated foods, and white potatoes became the first foods to be zapped in 1964, when they were irradiated to extend their shelf life.

The decision last week to add spinach and lettuce to the list marked the first time the FDA has allowed produce to be treated with radiation levels high enough to protect against human illness. Leafy greens can pose a particular risk for contamination by bacteria like E. coli because the texture of their leaves allow bacteria and pests to cling, and because they are usually eaten raw.

The scientific evidence overwhelmingly suggests that irradiation is a safe way to treat food, Powell said. But consumers are not being given a fair chance to try irradiated foods and make up their own minds because retailers, wary of criticism and losing profits, are nervous about adding them to store shelves, he said.

"Nobody is letting consumers decide," Powell said.

Foods treated with irradiation currently have to be labeled with a radura symbol ( here ) and the words "radiated" or "irradiated," though there is a proposal before the FDA to change the labeling requirements.

Powell said that efforts to change labeling are often "weasely" and don't give consumers enough credit. He dislikes alternative labels like "cold pasteurization" because they don't provide consumers with straightforward information about the process. Limiting information in that way just makes consumers angry and raises suspicions about what's being hidden from them, he said: "Labeling is a lousy way to inform people."

Powell also says that irradiation should be used alongside other methods of preventing food-borne illness from farm to table, not as a replacement for them.

"There is never a magic bullet solution," he said, describing the food safety system as a series of hurdles that bacteria and pathogens would have to overcome in order to get into consumers' food and make them ill. "Irradiation is one more hurdle."

But irradiation is not effective against everything lurking on food that holds the potential for harm - viruses, for example. As well, some critics counter that the treatment can harm the appearance and nutritional quality of produce, though industry groups counter that new technology has eliminated that side effect of irradiation.

Either way, consumer concern about food-borne illnesses isn't likely to fade, Powell said, because it's a worry that is universal. "We all eat," he said.

 

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