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The Case for Food Irradiation

Researchers say it would greatly reduce rates of food-borne illnesses

WEDNESDAY, April 28, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Irradiating food is safe and effective, so why isn't the United States doing it more often?

That's the message of both an article and a perspective piece that appear in the April 29 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The articles make a plea to physicians and health-care providers to push for more irradiation of foods to kill potentially deadly germs.

According to the article, an estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illness, resulting in more than 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths, occur every year in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that if 50 percent of food were irradiated, there would be 900,000 fewer cases of food-borne illnesses annually and 352 fewer deaths.

The United States produces 8 billion pounds of ground beef every year, 25.6 million of which -- 0.32 percent -- is contaminated with the E. coli bacterium.

At the present time in the United States, 10 percent of herbs and spices and less than 0.002 percent of fruits, vegetables, meats and poultry are irradiated. Astronauts, however, have been eating irradiated steak since 1960, the perspective author pointed out.

"Basically, this is a lifesaving technology that is readily available today and, unfortunately, it is being used only in a very sparing way," said article co-author Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease, Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "This is akin to what we saw in the 1920s and 1930s with milk pasteurization. Today we wouldn't think of providing milk without pasteurizing it."

Osterholm reported he has received financial support from SureBeam, an irradiator, and other organizations.

But opponents argue that if better safety measures were implemented earlier in the food-production cycle, especially for meat, there would be no need for irradiation.

"If we had a system comparable to that of northern Europe with strict regulation and zero tolerance for contaminants, we wouldn't be having the problem in the first place," said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Organic Consumers Association. "Let's follow that line of thinking rather than just assume we've got a horrible situation getting worse that we can only solve with a problematic technology."

Irradiation involves using high-energy radiation either from gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams to rid foods of most of their pathogens. The process does not eliminate the need for safe handling of food, but it does minimize the chances that germs such as E. coli will make it onto your dinner table. According to the article, food sterilization by irradiation requires a dose of radiation about 10 to 30 times the dose needed for pasteurization.

Red meat, poultry, pork, fruits and vegetables, aromatic spices, seeds, herbs and seasonings, enzyme preparations, eggs and wheat are all approved for irradiation.

Osterholm estimated the cost to the consumer of irradiating large quantities of food to be less than 5 cents a pound for meat or poultry. He also pointed out the process is not harmful and does not destroy nutritional quality, which some, including the Organic Consumers Association, have argued.

"Most scientists are agreed that it is safe," added Donald W. Thayer, author of the accompanying perspective article and a retired microbiologist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service who now works as a consultant.

"One could argue that slaughterhouses could be cleaned up more and I won't argue with that," Thayer added. "But most [slaughterhouses] work at a very good level of sanitation, and simply facing the facts of life, some contamination may occur and the radiation then turns out to be a very good means of helping ensure that pathogens don't reach the consumer. Would it be ideal if we didn't have to do anything? Yes. To say that organic-grown animals are the only way to go is a little bit ridiculous."

Irradiation does seem to be catching on, albeit in small ways. The USDA now offers irradiated ground beef for school lunches to about 27 million children, the article stated. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration may authorize irradiation of cold cuts and processed meats, the perspective piece stated.

"The issue is that this is no longer a debate," Osterholm said. "There's no need at this point for balance on this issue any more than on the flat earth society. There is an extensive body of information with every major scientific and medical group on board that this is a safe and effective process. The same arguments were used in terms of milk pasteurization almost 80 years ago. And the bottom line is a lot of people died from drinking unpasteurized milk and today we consider it very wholesome and nutritious."

More information

Learn more about irradiation at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Find an opposing viewpoint at the Organic Consumers Association.

SOURCES: Michael T. Osterholm, Ph.D., director, Center for Infectious Disease, Research and Policy, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis; Donald W. Thayer, Ph.D., consultant; Ronnie Cummins, national director, Organic Consumers Association, Little Marais, Minn.; April 29, 2004, New England Journal of Medicine
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