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Irradiation Will Prevent Future Outbreaks

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, December 19, 2006

Monday’s Wall Street Journal editorial page spoke out in favor of irradiation:

Says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota: “If even 50% of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact on foodborne disease would be a reduction in 900,000 cases, and 350 deaths.” A 2005 CDC assessment agrees: “Food irradiation is a logical next step to reducing the burden of food borne diseases in the United States.”

We asked several leading health scientists whether food irradiation could have prevented the E. coli outbreak at Taco Bell restaurants. “Almost certainly, yes,” says Dennis Olson, who runs a research program on food irradiation at Iowa State University. A recent study by the USDA’s Agriculture Research Service confirms that “most of the fresh-cut (minimally processed) fruits and vegetables can tolerate a radiation of 1.0 kGy, a dose that potentially inactivates 99.999% of E. coli.”

And the editorial concludes:

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. has reduced by roughly half the death and illness from foodborne disease. Yet 325,000 Americans are still hospitalized and 5,000 die each year from contaminated food. Today only about 1% of our meat and produce is irradiated, though the technology was invented here. Such nations as India, Mexico and Thailand are starting to irradiate most of the food they export to the U.S., which means that produce from abroad could be safer than that grown here. The real scandal of these E. coli outbreaks is that public safety has taken a back seat to political correctness and bureaucratic delay at the FDA.

Here at the Pundit we’ve discussed irradiation, most recently here. In fact almost ten years ago the Pundit wrote a column in the Pundit’s sister magazine PRODUCE BUSINESS that pointed out:

Did your mother ever tell you to finish your dinner because there are starving children in the world? Well, if your mother was right, we just did a horrible thing. You know the 25 million pounds of meat the government just ordered destroyed because it may have been contaminated by the deadly Escherichia coli 0157.H7 strain? The meat could have been made edible with irradiation. Not saleable in the U.S., of course, after all the bad publicity, but the meat would have been fully edible and no more irrational to consume than it is to consume milk, which in the raw state is often filled with contaminants but made completely safe by pasteurization….

Perhaps, today, this isn’t the produce industry’s battle, but nasty bacteria can live on produce, too, and as we move into a brave new world of produce, one with fresh-cut fruit commonplace, the environment becomes better for malicious bugs to grow.

So our turn will come, too, unless we can first change the political and cultural environment of our society so that malicious ideas can not take root so easily. What we need is one brave supermarket executive to state the truth: Irradiation is important for food safety, and we are going to try our best to offer our consumers a choice of irradiated products.

When the history of irradiation is written, that executive will be the true hero of food safety reform in the United States, for that person will stand out as the one executive with the courage to speak the truth that others dared not speak. Is there a hero reading today?

And, increasingly, it seems like this is the only “solution” that will meet the “problem” as defined by the FDA.

One of the most thought-provoking Mailbags we ever published at the Pundit (see it here) dealt with risk and contained a letter from Bob Sanderson of Jonathan’s Sprouts, in which this veteran of the food safety wars on sprouts pointed out the problem:

Specifically, the problem is how “critical control” is understood. The FDA and USDA both define it as eliminating a risk or reducing it to an acceptable level. Since no one in any public position can ever propose that there is an acceptable level of illness, what this means is that there is basically a zero tolerance for risk.

In the same Pundit Mailbag, Rick Russo of Tanimura & Antle pointed out that this contrasted with the way the commercial air industry operated in which the FAA has defined an acceptable failure level:

When you mentioned the “analogy” to 9/11 and the uncertainty of air safety, it made me think. The commercial aviation industry operates under federal regulation with a permanent uncertainty of safety. In fact, the target rate of fatal incidents established by FAA is .018 per 100,000 departures….

Based on your estimate of a trillion serving of lettuce and spinach over the last ten years, and a known fatality rate of 5, our industry’s fatality rate per 100,000 servings is .0005, or 360 times lower. Never mind the fact that FAA is measuring “incidents” vs. individual fatalities.

The core problem with ALL food safety initiatives currently being proposed for the industry is that NONE of them guarantee against another outbreak. Since this is the case, and no outbreak is acceptable, the only possible answer is we need a kill step.

The only viable one is irradiation.

Right now irradiation is not approved for processed produce. An application has been sitting there since 1999. We are told that the FDA considers action on it a “no win” for the agency. If they approve irradiation, they get protests and problems, but there is no scientific basis for rejection, so it just sits.

So we need our government relations efforts to move this ahead quickly. The science is there, with no justification for delay.

Many fear consumer acceptance issues but those have not proven to be major problems when consumers are given information about irradiation. The biggest problem has been retailers that allowed themselves to be bullied by threats from activists.

But the whole attitude toward things nuclear has been changing. Many environmentalists that were ready to go to the mat to fight nuclear power plants now see them as the best alternative to prevent global warming. Equally, the recent spate of illness and death from foodborne illness may open a door to let people see irradiation as a reasonable alternative.

In any case, the best way to start dealing with those issues would be to start marketing some product made safe through irradiation.

Let us push the FDA to give the go-ahead so at least we can begin some test marketing in this direction.

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