business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Sacramento Bee reports that “two high-profile E. coli outbreaks this year have some in the food business wondering - once again – whether it's time to go nuclear. For decades, many food safety experts have argued that irradiation - zapping food with high-energy rays to kill microorganisms - could avert hundreds of deaths and perhaps millions of illnesses each year. But for just as long, federal regulators and food retailers have been leery of bringing the technology to market.

“Despite exhaustive reviews by federal scientists and endorsements by public health and medical groups around the world, irradiation by its very name conjures up images that are anything but wholesome - nuclear fallout, for one.”

While the federal government has approved irradiation as a “disinfectant for a limited range of foods, including spices and ground beef,” the Bee writes, “a food industry petition to greatly expand that approval to include many ready-to-eat products - fresh bagged greens, for instance - has been awaiting review by the agency for more than seven years.”

According to the story, irradiation would help address one of the most troubling issues at play in the current E. coli outbreak – the difficulty in finding out where the contamination occurred.

“Irradiation introduces the prospect of a final ‘kill step,’ for fresh produce, an additional layer of protection if other precautions fail,” the Bee writes. “The high-energy rays can penetrate packaging, making it possible to do a final disinfection after, say, spinach leaves have been washed and sealed in a bag. The technology can also kill pathogens nestled where disinfectants like chlorine don't always reach - in a crevice in a leaf of spinach, for instance.

“Recent studies have shown that the technology will reduce populations of common foodborne disease pathogens by at least 99.9 percent without hurting the quality of most fresh produce,” according to at least one study.

KC's View:
We know a lot of people who believe that the biggest problem with irradiation is its name – that if it had a more positive-sounding name, people wouldn’t be as worried about it, and opponents would have a harder time developing scare tactics aimed at keeping it from becoming commonplace.

Although, describing it alternatively as the “nuclear option” probably isn’t going to help.

It certainly seems like the time has come for irradiation to be used as a broadly used food safety tool. In the light of the recent E. coli outbreaks, we’ll be curious to hear the opposing argument.