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[whitespace] Irradiated Food
Gamma Shelter: The FDA requires warning labels on irradiated food, most commonly the 'radura' logo, but some critics feel these requirements are inadequate.

X-Ray Specs

Facing the possibility of agriterrorism, anthrax-scared Americans are reaching for irradiated food, but still questioning its effectiveness

By Genevieve Roja

IN A SEA of red potatoes, white onions and moss-green Brussels sprouts at the Safeway on Stevens Creek Boulevard, Jennifer Bullock, 21, and Adam OwYoung, 22, are having the all-too-familiar produce section banter. Should we get these or these? She's talking about someone at work; he's nodding and uh-huh-ing while plastic-bagging a trio of onions. The scene is being repeated all over America, and all over America, people are purchasing irradiated food.

Irradiation is a decades-old process that exposes produce, meat, poultry and eggs to ionizing radiation to kill bacterial organisms and sanitize the food. Until recently, the technology has not been widespread, because it was not widely deemed necessary. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, irradiation is being given new consideration.

Asked if they would purchase food they knew was irradiated, Bullock, OwYoung and another shopper who prefers only to give his first name, Kishore, all stop to consider.

"Would they have signs?" OwYoung asks.

Yes, they would have signs and warning labels, as is already mandated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

"Yeah, probably," OwYoung says.

Kishore approached the question by asking more questions.

"Would it [the irradiated food] be at the same price?"

Theoretically, yes.

"Would that radiation be harmful to me?"

According to the FDA, the food is only slightly warmed in irradiation, and contrary to the public's notion, the process does not create radioactive waste or expose humans to radiation. Knowing this, would he still buy irradiated food?

"Probably yes," Kishore says.

He says his reasons for saying yes have more to do with the Sept. 11 aftermath than with his concern for fruit flies in his imported papayas. The threat of agriterrorism--America's crops and fields being tainted at the hands of malicious forces--is very real. President Bush, perhaps acting on this, tapped Congress to approve an additional $61 million in October to inspect food. The public may have spoken as well. According to a recent post-9/11 survey by the global public relations firm Porter Novelli, 52 percent of U.S. consumers believe the government should require irradiation of all food products.

But groups like Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety say that it is a premature move. They claim that in the food irradiation process, dangerous chemicals called cyclobutanones are released. The groups say cyclobutanone, which they assert does not occur naturally on Earth, has caused genetic damage in rats, and genetic and cellular damage in human and rat cells.

However, Christine Bruhn, director at the Center for Consumer Research at UC-Davis, says those groups' statements are not supported by scientific evidence. She argues that there have been extensive animal studies that validate irradiation's safety. 5,200 people die each year from food-borne illnesses, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"I'm in favor of any technology that enhances food safety," says Bruhn, whose primary directive is enhancing the public's understanding of scientific issues. "It's been tested extensively."

Radar or Not

The controversy that surrounds irradiation is not new. Food purists argue that the technology and the results it produces are unnatural. Others argue that the technology, using a linear accelerator that strikes electron beams at the food's surface, effectively kills a bacteria's DNA molecules. By destroying the molecules, the organisms can't replicate, and thus the food is deemed safe from bacterial strains such as salmonella and E. coli.

Besides food, other consumer items are irradiated and therefore sterilized, including medical supplies such as surgical gloves, Band-Aids, baby bottle nipples, baby pacifiers, feminine products, cosmetics and some herbs and spices. It wasn't until 1963 that the FDA approved irradiation of wheat flour to control mold growth. Soon after, the FDA approved irradiation for white potatoes, in order to inhibit sprouting; for pork, to kill trichina parasites; for fruits and vegetables, to control insects and increase shelf life; for poultry (in 1990) and meat (in 1997), to eliminate bacterial pathogens. Recently the government added eggs to the irradiation list, with the intention of eradicating salmonella.

It's likely most Americans have already consumed irradiated foods, like everyday dried spices and dried vegetable seasonings. The Center for Consumer Research reports that irradiated produce has been sold in some U.S. supermarkets since January 1992. In 1995, the USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture) approved using irradiation on fresh fruits--citrus, apples, strawberries and Hawaiian-grown fruits like papaya, rambutan, lychee and cherimoya--to kill fruit flies. In May 2000, irradiated frozen ground beef was sold in Minneapolis, and early this year more than 20,000 supermarkets in more than 16 states sold Huiskens-brand patties, according to the Center for Consumer Research. Irradiated frozen chicken breasts have sold consistently since the late 1990s in Florida. Since being approved for irradiation, poultry has been sold at retail outlets in Florida, Illinois, Iowa and Kansas. Vadilla onions irradiated in Florida have been sold in Chicago retail centers since 1992. South Africa, China, Thailand, Russia, France, Portugal, Israel and the Netherlands have all begun irradiating food.

The FDA has several guidelines for the amount of energy transferred to food and other substances during the irradiation process. The doses are measured in kiloGray (Gy.) units. Only 4.5 kiloGrays can be used on meat, like fresh chicken; the limit for fresh fruit is one kiloGray. It has been reported, however, that it would take at least 40 kiloGrays to kill anthrax spores. According to the CDC--which, along with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Assistant Secretary of Health, the USDA and the FDA, endorses irradiation--irradiation does not change a food's nutritional value, nor can consumers discern food as irradiated upon tasting it. According to federal organic standards, however, irradiation is not an acceptable method of processing, and therefore organic produce is untouched by radiation.

Irradiated Demand

Consumers may take comfort knowing that the FDA requires warning labels on irradiated food. Consumers can find at the food display some text indicating that the food has been irradiated or look for the "radura" logo, the international sign showing a flower shielded by a broken arch, whose bottom is rounded out by a full arch to make a complete circle. But the logo isn't the be-all, end-all of educating customers on irradiation, says Sarah Miles, marketing director for the New Leaf Community Markets in Santa Cruz, Boulder Creek, Capitola and Felton.

"The regulations for identifying irradiated foods are insufficient to make them discernible to customers," Miles says.

Labeling became much more prominent following the Odwalla juice scare in 1996, when a 16-month-old girl died from E. coli-related illnesses and more than 50 children were also diagnosed with E. coli after drinking their fresh, unpasteurized apple juice. Since then, the FDA has required warning labels on vegetable and fruit juice products that were not processed to eliminate pathogens. Odwalla, which eventually pled guilty to criminal charges and paid a $1.5 million fine, has since pasteurized all its fruit juice products and this month sold the company to Coca-Cola.

But labels only go so far. Though food is labeled in stores, there is no such requirement for restaurants, schools, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutional settings, say Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety. Other red flags pop up, including when irradiation is also known under different pseudonyms, like cold pasteurization or X-ray pasteurization--seemingly more consumer-friendly names.

In surveys Americans may be saying "Legalize it" to irradiation, but produce buyers and managers at several grocery stores in the South Bay have yet to see those Americans demanding their irradiated foods.

"I tend to agree that most people are accepting of irradiated food," says Rich Dilly, produce buyer at Cosentino's. "It's going to be a long-term process [of acceptance], trial and error. It's going to come out better for the consumers and the growers themselves."

Adam OwYoung, the Safeway shopper, says he might buy irradiated food given enough information about the process.

"I'd buy if there was literature out there," OwYoung says. "They should put [out] relevant info or the FDA should have it on its website."

At the moment, Dilly says that Cosentino's does not sell irradiated produce. He also says he looks for overall quality rather than checking for foods that have been irradiated. He says that his customers rarely, if ever, ask him for irradiated merchandise. In essence, irradiated foods never reach the supermarket for consumption.

David Bowlby, Safeway director of public affairs for Northern California, says his stores have not sold irradiated food.

"From Safeway's standpoint, we aren't carrying irradiated beef or produce, but we are taking a serious look at this new technology in terms of food safety, in viewing it as an important tool to reduce pathogens," Bowlby says. "We're watching consumer reaction too. We want to respond to a customer's needs and wants."

When asked if Sept. 11 prompted Safeway to delve deeper into researching irradiation technology, Bowlby says there were other reasons.

"Overall, that's just one more factor in evaluating irradiated products, but it's not the main factor," Bowlby says. "Our produce and meat are very safe. When pathogens arise, it's very rare and uncommon."

Changing Hands

What is also uncommon is the number of irradiation facilities in California and around the country. According to Anne Clarke, business manager at Agbeta, a cold pasteurization facility in Carpenteria, Calif., the equipment alone is costly, at about $4 to $6 million, not including the building that houses it. At presstime, Clarke says that Agbeta would begin construction of a new cold pasteurization building in either Texas or New Mexico. The facility would concentrate on irradiating produce like frozen guacamole pulp, which contains an airborne bacteria called listeria that is also found in hot dogs and deli meats.

"Our plans are to build the first [facility] and take care of Mexican [imported] foods," Clarke says. "Could be poultry, stone fruit coming to the U.S. from Mexico. We kill the fruit flies on various [produce]."

She says California is getting irradiated papayas processed by Hawaii Pride in Hilo, where there is an irradiation facility to kill off fruit flies and other insects. The CDC has said that a Florida facility has been irradiating strawberries and other fruits on a limited basis, to prolong shelf life.

"Because of 9/11, people are knowing that we need this [irradiation] especially for imported foods," Clarke says. "Otherwise you wouldn't have any idea what would be in that food."

She argues that irradiating food is the safest way to protect against contamination, whether it's E. coli or anthrax.

"Our food is not grown in our backyard anymore," Clarke says. "It's handled from the field."

For example, Clarke says, the plucked produce often travels in a truck previously inhabited by chickens. Maybe the truck isn't properly washed down, maybe giving way to pathogens. The possibilities of cross contamination are endless.

"Irradiation is not a silver bullet, but you sure can cut down a lot of the deaths," Clarke says.

For Clarke, it's better safe than sorry.

"In my opinion, since 9/11, I think it's been shown to be safe," Clarke says. "It's been researched for almost 50 years. I think [irradiating food] is something that is going to have to be done for our security, for our country."

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From the December 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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