Nuking E.coli

Finally, FDA approval to irradiate food.

In a legendary episode of the classic TV show Gilligan's Island, the castaways find a crate of vegetable seeds washed up on the beach and plant them.  Their garden grows insanely fast and the vegetables themselves are exceptionally large, but somewhat odd in appearance.

They taste just great at dinner anyway - that is, until the radio brings news that the Navy is searching for a crate of "special experimental radioactive seeds."  Sure enough, that's what they were, and eating the mutant veggies gives super-powers along the lines of the vitamins they contain: Gilligan's love for spinach gives him super-strength, Mary Ann's preference for carrots lets her see ships miles out at sea, and Mrs. Howell's choice of sugar beets makes her - well, as Mr. Howell notes, "I should enter this woman in the Olympics!"

Unfortunately it's just a TV comedy, and irradiating seeds doesn't really produce super-powered side dishes.  As scientists have known for decades, radiation kills living things, but unless the dosages are insanely high, it doesn't do any harm to things which are already dead - like vegetables which have been picked or meat from a slaughtered animal.  This simple truth has led to a decades-long fight over an innovation that could save countless lives.

You see, no matter how careful you are when picking or washing fruits and vegetables or slaughtering food animals, it is very difficult to make sure that there are absolutely no harmful bacteria, germs, or other contaminants anywhere along the process.

If you're going to cook them, this isn't such a big deal - boiling water or grilling sterilize food just fine.  Salads are supposed to be eaten raw, though, so such things as lettuce, tomato, and onions can be more hazardous than their mild-mannered appearance would imply.

This very summer, nine people were sickened by salmonella bacteria.   At first, the bacteria were thought to have come from tomatoes which led to a massive, multi-million-dollar recall; the culprit later turned out to be Mexican peppers instead of tomatoes.  We've had similarly expensive problems with hamburger, pre-packaged salad, and many other foodstuffs.

With food prices rising inexorably, the last thing we need to do is to throw out whole trainloads of otherwise good food, but nobody wants to take responsibility if someone, somewhere should happen to get sick or die as a result.  Lawsuits being what they are, the safest course in the event of a scare is the expensive, inconvenient "solution" of a massive recall.

Food irradiation offers a way around this problem, and has for a long time - just pass the food under a beam of ionizing radiation.  Any living bacteria die instantly, but the food itself is unharmed, uncooked, and generally unaffected.

However, anything combining "radiation" and "food" suffers from an instant public relations problem.  When Reagan's FDA tried to establish rules for irradiating food, the usual protesters nearly glowed in the dark with rage, claiming that "The government has a plan to dispose of nuclear waste: You are going to eat it."  Not appreciating criticism, the bureaucracy stalled.

However, there's nothing to get a bureaucracy moving like recurring deaths - in fact, widely-publicized deaths are almost the only thing that ever does.  It's a shame that nothing gets done until someone dies, but with constant running food-safety scares over the last several years, the FDA finally got off the stick.  Reuters reports that we can, at long last, irradiate spinach and lettuce:

Health regulators have approved the use of ionizing radiation for fresh spinach and lettuce, saying the technique already approved for other foods can help control harmful bacteria and other pathogens...

The approval comes two years after E. coli outbreaks linked to spinach and lettuce sold in grocery stores and served at various restaurants. [emphasis added]

Two years is light speed for a regulatory bureaucracy; it's fortunate that they had all the information in the files from the Reagan attempt at legalizing this safe, effective procedure or it would have taken at least 5 times as long.

Not only does this common-sense, economical procedure make food safer, but the food lasts longer on the shelf, leading to less spoilage, less need for haste in transportation, and - aha! - fewer carbon emissions.

Once again, technology comes up with something that benefits both mankind and the environment, and yet the environmentalists oppose it tooth and nail.  With this belated, but welcome, FDA action, we can finally score one for science, the environment, and for common sense; better late than never!

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Environment.
Reader Comments
Just wanted to say that I love that episode of Gilligan's Island! One of my favorites. :)
August 26, 2008 8:43 AM
Irradiation is acceptable as long as the food product is labeled as being such. Country Of Origin Labeling should be mandatory on ALL products or ingredients imported into the USA.
August 26, 2008 9:37 AM
Lajaw's thought of labeling all food products with country of origin SOUNDS reasonable, but has he any idea how much cost that would impose? The food industry is not set up to track or label products such as tomatoes in that way. These ideas always impose far most cost than they deliver in benefits.
August 26, 2008 9:42 AM
"These ideas always impose far most cost than they deliver in benefits."

But we shouldn't be concerned about costs. The government should do what it can to protect us, regardless.

Do I sound like a liberal now?
August 26, 2008 11:29 AM
The article about the FDA says:

"Health regulators have approved the use of ionizing radiation for fresh spinach and lettuce, saying the technique already approved for other foods can help control harmful bacteria and other pathogens."

The key phrase is "already approved for other foods." They are approving this technique ONE VEGGIE AT A TIME! Given the number of vegetables they get to approve at two years per veggie, this is bureaucratic heaven. At one panic per vegetable, which is what it seems to take, this foot-dragging is going to be pretty costly.

We already know the FDA doesn't mind killing people by delaying drug approval, the guys who approve radiation are chips off the same old block.
August 26, 2008 11:31 AM
Your statement "the food itself is unharmed, uncooked, and generally unaffected" is false. I refer you to the following:
Have you considered the health and nutritional aspects of irradiation? It's not exactly "harmless" to the human body, which is far more important than the environment. Proper sanitation is a better alternative.
In addition, all food that is irradiated should be labeled. Given the condition of the food industry today and its products, a health-conscious consumer has a right to know what he is eating.
This is not a liberal viewpoint--the liberals would have us just eat what THEY think is good for us and ask no questions.
August 26, 2008 3:20 PM
I don't think anyone is arguing that irradiated food should not be labeled. The costs of labeling food that's been through a technological process is pretty minimal - what, a tenth of a cent for a sticker? It was origin-labeling that George said was outrageously expensive and difficult, and he's right.

So allowing irradiation of food as long as it's labeled as such, is exactly the right approach. I've heard complaints about health consequences to irradiated food; I've also seen other studies saying that that's bunk. By now, we should all be pretty skeptical about any claims as to what's healthy and what's not, it changes every day. So, make it available and labeled, and let each person make their own decision. After all, it's a free country, right?
August 26, 2008 3:50 PM
I'm not sure I agree with the labeling requirement. A lot of irradiating would have to take place mid-shipment as in AFTER it left the factory. The tomatoes, for instance, got the flu on the outside so they had to dump the entire train load. They should just setup some boom crane around the tracks that they can drive the train through which nukes everything inside. That way if the cargo gets contaminated you just re-route the train through the nearest nuke station and then continue on your way. Labeling would mean going back to the factory.
August 26, 2008 3:56 PM
I don't think you can irradiate the whole train all at one go, you have to do it one fruit at a time (maybe a bunch of them dumped out on a continuous conveyor), or maybe one box at a time. Either way, you'd have to unload, and you could slap a sticker on the box when you crated them back up again. Not that big of a deal.

In the event of an emergency-irradiation after a scare like you describe, you'd WANT to label them even if you didn't have to. Otherwise nobody would eat them.
August 26, 2008 4:44 PM
Agree with Patience on labeling. However, re: his/her comment "we should all be pretty skeptical about any claims as to what's healthy and what's not, it changes every day." May I kindly submit--that attitude is an oft-stated cop-out. Anybody who really wants to know, and is willing to do their homework, CAN reasonably know what is healthy and what is not.
August 26, 2008 5:41 PM
I seriously doubt they would have to nuke each tomato one at a time. Maybe a few crates at a time, but doing each fruit in onesies wouldn't be possible. They handle this stuff in batch loads for everything else.
August 26, 2008 7:01 PM
It took a while, but even the NY Times got on board:

Safer Salad
Consumers often cringe at the mention of radiation, but the technology is a safe way to eliminate the threat posed by E. coli, salmonella and listeria in the food supply.
August 28, 2008 8:48 AM
For 'JEB'...RIGHT ON! ! ! I, for one, am 'over' having the government telling me what they'r egoing to do to our foods and make sure that we're their own personal GUINEA PIGS for the promotion of the Medical INDUSTRY! ! ! I WILL NOT BE THEIR 'LAB RAT'! ! !
August 28, 2008 1:46 PM
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