July 16, 2020

In his Op-ed essay on irradiation (BDN, Jan. 22-23), Dr. Robert A. Graves says “Nicols Fox … tries to lay the blame for contaminated meat on unsanitary conditions in the slaughterhouse.” I don’t have to try. That is the “critical point,” to use an industry term, when meat becomes contaminated with fecal material, the source of E. coli O157:H7. But don’t take my word for it. At the meeting of the Western States Meat Association last March, Paul Clayton, a representative for Con Agra Meat, one of the largest meat-packing companies in America, said, “Contamination from E. coli can be limited by proper skinning methods and education of workers involved with that process.”

The World Health Organization favors food irradiation for many reasons. But it says in its book, “Food Irradiation”: “Among the factors that appear to account for the increases in foodborne disease are explosive growth in the mass rearing of food animals, polluted environments, mass production of foods of plant origin, increasing international trade in food and animal feed and the large-scale movement of people as guest workers, immigrants, and tourists.” It never seems to occur to anyone that rather than introduce a potentially dangerous technology of unproven safety — the long-term effects of irradiation will take many years to gauge — that the corrective action might be applied to the causes of foodborne disease.

Dr. Graves claims that irradiated products are free of pathogens. He is mistaken. To again quote WHO, “… irradiation … does not destroy every single microorganism present; it does not sterilize food. After treatment, the surviving organisms may start to multiply again if conditions are favorable.” The longer shelf life for irradiated foods would provide a perfect opportunity for that to occur.

Neither does the process kill all pathogens. “… the spores of the bacterium known as Clostridium botulinum are not killed by low doses of radiation. If irradiated or heat pasteurized food containing this organism is kept in a sealed container at room temperature, C. botulinum can multiply and produce disease.” As most people know, botulism is a virulent and often fatal food poisoning. Doses high enough to kill C. botulinum make food unpalatable and, in any case, exceed the dose of radiation approved by the WHO.

Two USDA studies have demonstrated conclusively that people are not aware of proper safe handling and cooking procedures for foods, especially raw meats. To add to this climate of general ignorance a product which consumers will assume is pathogen free is simply to ask for trouble.

And yet the industry that wants to bring us food irradiation for our “safety” is fighting tooth and nail to keep safe handling labels off raw meat products. A lawsuit brought by the National Grocers Association prevented the USDA from implementing their order for meat labels that warn of bacteria that could cause illness and instructing in safe handling procedures. The agency has asked grocers to use the labels voluntarily and in many areas they are doing so. But not here in Maine. Not here in the state which, according to a recent CDC-sponsored survey of bacterial causes of serious diarrhea, had the highest incidence of E. coli infection. Why don’t we have safe handling labels?

If the state abandons its reasonable cautious approach to this unproven technology for the sake of expediency under industry pressure and allows irradiated food to be sold in Maine, the least it can do is require clear labeling on the consumer package to indicate an irradiated product. If irradiation is safe, there’s no need for secrecy. And why is the industry so opposed to letting this one state decide for itself?

Nicols Fox is a TV commentator and free-lance writer.

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