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Nuking E.coli

Finally, FDA approval to irradiate food.

By Petrarch  |  August 26, 2008

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!