It's Time For Americans To Accept Irradiated Food
As Food-Borne Bacteria Threaten To Gain The Upper Hand, A New Technology Emerges To Do Battle. Will Shoppers Balk?
November 8, 1999
by Dennis T. Avery
November 5, 1999
THE BridgeNews FORUM: Viewpoints on farming, farm policy and related agricultural issues.
CHURCHVILLE, Va.-America's largest poultry processor and its two largest beef processors recently signed agreements to start using "electronic pasteurization" on some meat products.
Poultry giant Tyson Foods as well as Iowa Beef Processors and Cargill have signed commitments to use a new irradiation facility being built in Sioux City, Iowa, by Titan Corp. of San Diego.
The meat processors predict the new germ-killing process will sharply reduce food-borne bacteria risks for consumers. As a side benefit, it will enhance product freshness and extend shelf life.
It's about time.
This new emphasis on killing bacteria in meat is a recognition that today's bacteria are more serious threats than the microorganisms of even 20 years ago.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that vicious new strains of E. coli and salmonella have begun to assault the public, while listeria, campylobacter and cyclospora are causing outbreaks of food-borne illnesses unknown before 1980.
The virulent O157:H7 strain of E. coli was the culprit in deaths caused by undercooked hamburgers at Jack In The Box restaurants in the Pacific Northwest in 1993. The strain can kill even healthy people, not just the old or the weak. Many survivors are left with permanent kidney or liver damage.
The CDC's Paul Meade recently estimated that food-borne bacteria causes 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year in America and 5,000 deaths.
Meade says more bacterial dangers have emerged as microorganisms undergo natural mutations and as people change what they eat, where they eat and how their food is processed.
The meat processors and Titan Corp. emphasize that "electronic pasteurization" does not involve radioactive cobalt, as do some irradiation processes.
The Titan plant will use an electron beam driven by ordinary electricity rather than by radioactive materials. The meatpackers say the electron beam is faster, lower in cost and more flexible to use in processing than the cobalt system.
The electronic beam can kill microbes in seconds, whereas gamma radiation might take hours. In the event of a problem, cutting off the power will shut off the electronic beam.
The origins of electron beam irradiation reach back to the discovery of X-rays in 1895. Within a year, researchers knew that X-rays could kill bacteria.
A variety of secondary particles, including ions and free radicals- unstable oxygen molecules-break the DNA chains in the microorganisms and prevent them from reproducing.
Most health professionals have been urging broader use of irradiation to kill bacteria in the food system. The World Health Organization, the American Medical Association and the American Dietetic Association all endorse the safety and food protection values of both the electronic beam and cobalt processes.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Food Safety Inspection Service both have approved irradiation for chicken and are in the final stages of regulations covering its use on red meat.
However, consumers have been more wary of the irradiation process than of the bacteria, which they think they're successfully combating with refrigeration and hand-washing. The statistics say they greatly underestimate the danger.
Environmental activists have also tried to demonize irradiation in general and the cobalt process in particular.
In the 19th century, it took the threat of tuberculosis to get consumers to accept pasteurized milk. It will be interesting to see whether today's supposedly more risk-averse and quality-conscious consumer will respond to the provable gains in safety and freshness when irradiated foods are finally offered on a broad basis.
Irradiation should be of special interest to organic and "natural" food firms. Organic farming poses a special risk because it often uses animal manure to fertilize food crops. Cattle manure is the biggest reservoir of O157 bacteria.
"Natural" juices-unpasteurized juices-have also been implicated in a high percentage of O157 outbreaks. France is currently using irradiation on some of its poultry and small amounts of irradiated poultry; in the United States, small amounts of strawberries are sold as premium products.
Tyson and other meat processors agree with health authorities that electronic pasteurization is no silver bullet for consumer protection.
The meatpackers say they will continue to stress good sanitation and good packing-plant operating procedures and, of course, will continue to have federal meat inspectors in their plants.
The big meatpackers are also well aware that Hudson Foods was essentially driven out of business after a supermarket worker was diagnosed with O157 after eating that company's frozen ground beef.
Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman initiated a nationwide recall of Hudson products, and the firm was sold to Tyson Foods in 1998. Clearly, it's in the meatpackers' best interest to make their foods as safe as possible.
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Dennis T. Avery is based in Churchville, VA, and is director of the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Food Issues.