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Pundit’s Mailbag — Can Irradiation Follow The Path Of Pasteurization?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 4, 2007

As we have been discussing irradiation, it is a good time to bring out a letter from one of the trade’s more intriguing thinkers. We had run a piece entitled Raw Milk And Dirty Produce: Perfect Together that juxtaposed certain activists’ efforts to legally drink raw or unpasteurized milk with the regulatory assumption that consumers were so risk-adverse that only zero possibility of food borne illness was acceptable on produce. The piece brought this note:

Regarding “Raw Milk And Dirty Produce: Perfect Together,” I hope that as different groups propose different solutions to the safety problems associated with leafy greens, we can keep the pasteurization story in mind. 100 or so years ago, most people who drank milk drank raw milk. That was what milk was. Who knows what the typical dairy was like in terms of sanitation? Nonetheless, what they produced was milk. Those people who were worried about possible illness had the option to do some kind of home-pasteurization.

Once pasteurization became an accepted practice, raw milk became gradually re-identified. The people selling pasteurized milk, and the whole industry supporting them, had a vested interest in defining pasteurized milk as the only safe milk, regardless of the sanitation practices of the individual dairy. Today, selling raw milk is a criminal act, and drinking it, as you quote in your article, is playing Russian Roulette.

When some process is identified as a safer way to produce or treat salad greens, is there any reason to suppose that it won’t become illegal to sell any salad ingredients that are not produced or treated using the process, and that the risks which have been acceptable up to now will in the future be seen as Russian Roulette?

Is this what we want? Do we have any choice?

— Bob Sanderson
Jonathan’s Sprouts
Rochester, Massachusets

Coming from the sprout industry, Bob has had plenty of time to think through the implications of various food safety regimens. Here he makes an important point: Many of us view irradiation much as we might view organics, not something to be mandated but a reasonable choice to offer consumers.

Bob raises a question about how the very existence of use of technology changes the prism through which we evaluate our environment.

So, as he points out, it used be that raw milk was the norm and those who did something to their milk were the fringe. Yet something eventually happened to the way the public perceives milk, so that now, it is pasteurized milk that is the norm, that is, in some sense, milk. Raw or unpasteurized milk is an oddity that most people wouldn’t consider fit for human consumption.

Bob is quicker than the Pundit would be to attribute this switch to the vested interests of producers. It may just be a “tipping point” phenomenon in which when something reaches critical mass, the formerly accepted practice becomes quaint or odd. In other words, we don’t have to blame a plumber’s conspiracy for the fact that a person who lives without running water is going to be deemed both odd and unsanitary.

Still, with mangos from India and other imported tropicals being treated with irradiation, the comfort level will grow and then, somebody is bound to try an experiment on selling bagged salads. If it is safer and financially feasible, soon that will be recommended and some retailers will only sell irradiated product.

Very possibly we will reach a tipping point in which that becomes the norm. Then it is easy to pass laws restricting the sale of non-irradiated product.

Bob is just laying out this road for us and is asking if we really want to go down it.

Of course, as he also acknowledges, if we, despite the new Good Agricultural Practices documents in California, have more outbreaks, this may be the only path open to the industry.

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