[Rushtalk] Efforts to zap bacteria in food are slow to catch hold

Carl William Spitzer IV cwsiv at copper.net
Sun May 25 17:36:48 MDT 2014

By  Kimberly Kindy,  E-mail the writer 

GULFPORT, Miss. — The nuclear energy that Frank Benso uses to kill
bacteria in fruit and oysters has won widespread support from public
health officials and scientists, who say it could turn the tide against
the plague of foodborne illness.

TheFood and Drug Administration has approved the use of radiation to
wipe out pathogens in dozens of food products, and for decades it has
been used in other developed countries without reports of human harm.

But it has barely caught on in the United States. The technology —
called irradiation — zaps bacteria out of food and is highly effective,
but for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life
forms and phosphorescent food.

Benso, who opened Gateway America 18 months ago, also knows his new
venture pits him against the nation’s growing buy-local, back-to-nature
movement that shuns industrial food processing.

“Those naysayers better throw out their microwaves, because that is
irradiation,” Benso said, standing in his 50,000-square-foot irradiation

Dozens of scientific studies have shown that irradiated food is safe for
human consumption, and that no radioactive material has leaked outside
any U.S. plant, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The
three forms of energy that can be used — gamma rays, electron beams and
X-rays — can virtually eliminate bacteria in minutes. All this has
prompted the World Health Organization, the American Medical
Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and
dozens of other groups to endorse its use.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease
Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames an
“anti-science movement” for the public resistance. He is frustrated with
the federal government for endorsing irradiation but then not educating
the public as it has with childhood immunizations and water

“Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of
the last part of the 20th century in America,” said Osterholm, citing
CDC estimates that 1 in 6 people will get food poisoning this year and
3,000 will die. “We could have saved so many lives.”

The United States has dozens of irradiation facilities, but most of them
are used to sterilize medical equipment and supplies. Consumer goods
such as tampons and bandages are also routinely irradiated. A half-dozen
facilities use radiation exclusively for food.

A steadfast team of consumer advocates has successfully campaigned
against its use, first at the nonprofit group Public Citizen and then
after founding the nonprofit organization Food and Water Watch.

The Washington-based group claims credit for keeping irradiated food out
of the National School Lunch Program and blocking efforts to get rid of
the federal requirement that all irradiated food in retail
establishments carry a Radura label — a green plant in a circle —
indicating it has been irradiated.

Food and Water Watch officials point out that the same energy that kills
bacteria can also alter the chemical structure of food. The group’s
concern is that carcinogens are created — something that Executive
Director Wenonah Hauter warned about in her 2008 book “Zapped:
Irradiation and the Death of Food.”

In recent years, the advocates have increasingly focused on a separate
concern: that manufacturers using irradiation will slack off on other
vital safety measures designed to keep pathogens out of food in the
first place.

“We are concerned about the impact that the technology will have on the
entire food-production process — that it will become less about
prevention and more about treatment,” Assistant Director Patty Lovera

Where and how

Gateway America is in what Benso thinks is a sweet spot: At the
Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, near the Gulf of Mexico and major
highways, where vast amounts of fresh fish, fruits and meat can be
shipped, trucked or flown in and treated.

A few miles down the road from his high-tech facility is
an old-fashioned oyster-shucking house filled with men and women wearing
rubber boots and hairnets who work 10-hour shifts, knocking off mussels
and clumps of dirt to provide a steady supply of oysters to Benso’s

Benso not only had to gamble his life savings and recruit investors to
launch his company, he had to pass a series of inspections — including
one by the NRC — and is regulated by no fewer than 16 agencies. And for
each food item that he and other irradiators treat, the FDA had to grant
permission to do so.

It’s a slog to make it through the FDA’s approval process. Earlier this
month, the agency approved irradiation for use on crustaceans — shrimp,
lobsters, crabs — but it took 13 years. The last approval before that
was for spinach and iceberg lettuce, in 2008, which took nearly a

In its reviews, the FDA looks at whether the treatment could increase
the toxicity of the food, degrade nutrients or create new opportunities
for pathogens to flourish instead of die. With crustaceans and leafy
greens, concerns from Food and Water Watch and other groups arose about
furans, potentially carcinogenic substances that are produced by
“ionizing radiation.”

The treatments use either gamma rays, X-rays or electron beams to
eliminate bacteria by destroying their genetic material, but this also
can alter the chemical makeup of the food.

Food scientists say it sounds scary, but they emphasize that the same
thing happens when peaches are heated during canning or when eggs are
scrambled over a flame. The question that the FDA had to answer is
whether irradiation produced levels of furans comparable to canning and
cooking or triggered an explosion of them.

Dennis Keefe, director of the FDA’s food-additive safety office, said
the research shows that the amount of furans produced was “much lower
than what would be produced during the normal cooking process.”

Still, Keefe said the FDA continues to be conservative about the level
of irradiation it allows. The agency still expects food processors to
eliminate as many bacteria as possible before irradiation, which comes
at the end and is treated as an “add-on” measure.

“It’s not intended to be a substitute for good manufacturing practices,”
Keefe said.

Overusing irradiation can make food unappealing. In ground beef, a high
dose can produce a “wet dog” odor. Too much radiation can make spinach
limp and walnuts taste fishy.

The only documented health problems linked to irradiation involved cats
in Australia that ate pet food treated with a high dose. In this
episode, dozens of cats suffered paralysis and had to be euthanized. In
response, Australia has banned cat-food irradiation. Irradiation experts
point out that the dosage levels used in Australia were 100 times the
level allowed for pet food in the United States — and about five times
what is approved for human food.

It’s in there

Americans already may eat more irradiated food than they realize.

Irradiated ingredients end up in processed foods that fill refrigerated
and frozen-food cases in grocery stores throughout the United States.
None of those products have to carry a special label.

So irradiated shrimp would have to bear the Radura logo if packaged on
its own, but not as an ingredient in tortellini or gumbo, for example.

Restaurant owners don’t have to disclose whether menu items include
irradiated food.

“The big food companies, if they are making a TV dinner or a meal, they
use spices that have been irradiated for the most part. They don’t want
to introduce possible pathogens that could spoil the food. Food
companies reduce risk any way they can,” said Jeff Barach, former vice
president of science policy at the Grocery Manufacturers Association.

The federal government does not keep track of the amount of food that is
irradiated. One source for that information is a food industry
consultant, Ronald T. Eustice, who also publishes the monthly newsletter
Food Irradiation Update.

By Eustice’s estimates, which are backed by other industry tallies,
spices represent the largest proportion of irradiated food products in
the United States — more than 175 million pounds — which is about
one-third of all commercial spices. (Spices are often treated because
they can have high levels of salmonella and other contaminants,
sometimes introduced in foreign countries where they are harvested and
dried outdoors.)

Irradiated hamburger totals about 18 million pounds and is sold at
Wegmans supermarkets and by mail from Schwan’s Home Service and Omaha

The only large expansion of irradiated food in recent years — and a big
driver behind Benso’s and two other irradiators’ decision to start
operating — is with imported fruits and vegetables.

In 2007, 10 million pounds of fruits and vegetables that are imported or
from Hawaii were being irradiated, typically to kill invasive insects
that could harm domestic crops. Now, according to U.S. Department of
Agriculture and industry estimates, it’s closer to 40 million pounds.

The treatment, called phytosanitation, is beginning to replace
fumigation and other chemical methods that can be used without consumer

Food irradiation must carry a label because federal law treats it as a
food additive, which requires that it be treated like other ingredients.
Other processes such as chemical washes for chickens and fumigation for
strawberries do not have to be disclosed on packaging.

Which is part of why irradiation advocates have fought to remove the
label. Professor Christine Bruhn of the University of California at
Davis and others are pushing for ways to get consumers to view
irradiation in a positive light.

“I would like to change the label to say ‘Irradiated to Protect your
Family’ or ‘Irradiated for Maximum Safety,’ ” said Bruhn, who has been
studying consumer attitudes toward irradiation for 30 years “But a lot
of people — they just want to get rid of the i-word.”


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