September, 1997

Fruits of Thought

Where Is Today's Hero

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 strain 0157:H7? 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.

In some future age someone will write a book about irradiation, and it won’t make late-20th century America look good. The book will tell the story of a primitive people frightened by what they could not understand. Even more, though, it will speak of a terrible lack of courage on the part of leaders, both private and governmental, who were so fearful of controversy that they allowed ignorant rabble-rousing extremists to dictate policy rater than going through the steps necessary to educate people on the facts. And they did this while innocent people fell ill and died due to food safety problems.

It is not a new story. When pasteurization was introduced, when polio vaccination was made mandatory, fluoridation, water chlorination, even Iodine was added to salt, these public health enhancements were met with fierce resistance by Luddites and others who have continued interest in playing on the fears that wrack men’s souls.

OK, so we have been conditioned to fear radiation. I remember being drilled in elementary school on how to duck under my desk in case of a nuclear attack. But irradiation is no more like nuclear bombs than are microwave ovens or X-rays. In fact, irradiation is used in over 40 countries, and Japan uses it on over 15,000 tons of potatoes each year.

We are rapidly reaching the point at which our society must face facts: Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman demanded enhanced authority in the face of this problem, including the power “to order recalls and impose civil fines.” (Isn’t it odd that, whatever the problem, government officials seem to think that enhanced authority for themselves is a good solution?) Others have demanded that we need more inspectors to detect food safety problems.

Yet all of this is virtually beside the point. In the E. coli incident, we are dealing with a bacteria that lives in the intestines of animals. The USDA currently has over 7,000 meat inspectors trying to visually inspect animal carcasses to prevent diseased meat from going to market. Unfortunately if they had 70,000 inspectors or 700,000 inspectors, we would still have food safety problems, lessened, perhaps, principally by the fact that no one could afford the food produced by plants with this many inspectors.

In fact, recalls, fines and more inspectors can’t solve this problem. Only a technological change, on the same par with pasteurization of milk, can solve this problem. And the name of that change is pasteurization via use of ionizing energy, also known as irradiation.

Of course, we have known this for a long time. This is not some new technology we are just learning about. We’ve been studying irradiation for half a century now. The U.S. army pioneered the development of irradiation back in the early forties. Already approved for a number of uses in the U.S., the technology has been endorsed by dozens of groups from the American Medical Association to the World Health Organization.

So, why is irradiation so sparsely used in the U.S.? Because every time someone proposes to use it, fanatical ant-scientific groups threaten protests, pickets and general disruption. This leads retailers to not want to stock irradiated foods, which leads manufacturers to not want to produce them. Even to do tests of irradiated produce, companies have had to find obscure independents willing to risk mayhem — although generally speaking, the consumer reception to the irradiated produce has been highly favorable, and the protests were mostly more in the threat than the reality.

Political leaders have jumped on the bandwagon of misinformation to score brownie points with the know-nothings. A number of states, including New York, have banned irradiated food despite its approval for safety by the appropriate agencies of the Federal government.

The fact that a useful technology is being sidelined is bad enough. Perhaps even worse, though, is what this tells us about our society. Politicians will say anything to win support, rather than viewing their role as one of studying issues and then doing the right thing. Business leaders will let whoever screams the loudest intimidate them from exercising leadership.

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 cannot 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?  pb