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Minneapolis Star Tribune, MN
Praised as safe, irradiated food still makes some wary
Supporters say the food preservation method saves lives,but critics say it's not
By Maura Lerner, Star Tribune
Whenever he hears about an outbreak of food poisoning, Ronald Eustice can
almost feel his blood boil. To him, the solution is obvious. And it has been for
Eustice, who heads the Minnesota Beef Council, is convinced that most of the
harmful germs lurking in meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables could be killed by
food irradiation.
Yet winning the hearts and minds of consumers has been tougher than he ever
So far, less than 1 percent of meat and poultry in the United States and only a
tiny fraction of produce, mostly imported tropical fruit, is irradiated.
But two recent outbreaks of E. coli infections in Minnesota and elsewhere, linked
to tainted spinach and lettuce, have renewed calls to expand use of the germkilling technology.
One scientist, Prof. Dennis Olson of Iowa State University, went a step
Olson said that if packaged spinach had been irradiated, "there would not have
been 199 cases of illness, 102 hospitalizations and three deaths" last September
and October.
In December, dozens more fell ill after eating at Taco John's and Taco Bell,
prompting one California attorney to call for congressional hearings on irradiating
"all mass-produced foods."
Opponents, who question the safety and necessity of food irradiation, are bracing
for another battle.
"People jump right on any outbreak to promote irradiation," said Patty Lovera,
assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in
Washington, D.C. "We think that would be an unfortunate result of the increased
attention on food safety problems."
Supporters like to compare food irradiation to pasteurization, which transformed
milk safety in the 1900s.
Irradiation uses electromagnetic waves to kill germs and parasites that may
contaminate food.
But the food does not become radioactive, as many people seem to think, says
Michael Osterholm, the nationally known food safety and infectious disease
expert at the University of Minnesota.
It's what NASA uses to sterilize astronauts' meals, he said, and is also widely
used to decontaminate spices.
The big advantage, Osterholm says, is as a weapon against disease: It could
prevent hundreds of thousands of cases of food-borne illness every year, and
save hundreds of lives.
Opponents cite problems
But opponents say that irradiation can harm food by killing nutrients and, in some
circumstances, generate cancer-causing chemicals.
They also argue that there are other ways to protect the food supply, such as
better sanitation and inspections.
"I don't think irradiation is a solution," said Dr. David Wallinga, director of the food
and health program at the St. Paul-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade
Policy. "It's at best a Band-Aid on a much bigger problem."
Osterholm dismisses the critics as scaremongers, and says there's no scientific
evidence to back up their fears. "They are a major reason that people are still
dying in this country from food-borne disease," he said.
Uphill battle to win converts
But even supporters acknowledge that it's been an uphill battle to win converts.
"The one thing that's holding this up is consumer acceptance," says Osterholm.
Eustice, who has been preaching the gospel of irradiation for 10 years, can count
only a few victories for his side.
Thanks to his organization, a beef industry trade group, Minnesota became the
first state to introduce irradiated beef in the United States in 2000.
And several Minnesota companies continue to sell it, including Simek's in St.
Paul Park; Schwan Food Co. in Marshall, and Schwan's supplier, Huisken Meat
Co. in Sauk Rapids.
But an attempt to feed irradiated beef to schoolchildren, under a government
school lunch program, collapsed before the first burger was served because of
local opposition in 2003.
"People trust the safety of our food supply, and their memories are very short,"
Eustice said. "Unfortunately, it's going to take more illness and more death."
If more irradiated fruit and vegetables arrive anytime soon, Eustice says, they're
likely to come from overseas.
A number of countries in Latin America, Asia and elsewhere are building
irradiation facilities, primarily to disinfect produce so it can pass U.S. inspection.
As it turns out, irradiation also kills fruit flies.
To Eustice, that's the ultimate irony.
"One of these days we may be in a situation where certain produce imported
from countries like Mexico, Thailand and India may be safer than that which is
produced here in the USA," he said. "Because it is irradiated."
Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384 • [email protected]