Irradiation With Your Salad, Ma’am?

For the past few years, intense debate has raged over a relatively new food safety technique-irradiation. An article in C&EN takes a look at new developments in the policy surrounding this controversial practice. Last month, the FDA approved irradiation on fresh lettuce and fresh spinach, adding to the growing list of “acceptably” irradiated foods. We all know from the relatively recent tomato/jalapeno pepper scare that foodborne pathogens are a problem and concern for general health and safety. Theoretically, irradiation seems like a great solution; any living bacteria or viruses would (hopefully) no longer be able to reproduce. Although irradiation may be the best and safest option in the future, right now it seems like an underhanded attempt to avoid dealing with the original sources of contamination, which tends to be (sorry for those who just ate) fecal matter. Animal waste is not adequately controlled, and not only does it get into the meat itself, it gets into the water that we spray on our crops. Personally, I would prefer not to eat animal waste, dead bacteria or not. I only hope that our government decides to address the real problems, not provide a quick and easy way out.

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  1. pweibel

    I think the final message is good… but the journey you took to get there is a little skewed. Irradiation of food is not a ‘new’ technique at all: http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/sources/food_history.html, it was invented in 1905 and approved in 1958/1963. Now the fecal matter part is spot on… if you don’t cook your food. Irradiation is used for things like to help preserve food (so that you can keep it on your shelf longer without it going bad), to sterilize food (like for hospitals) or to make it okay to eat something uncooked. As for eating dead bacteria… you might not want to read this: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/human-skin-is-a-zoo-of-bacteria-scientists-say-435234.html, probably won’t ever touch your tongue to a part of your body again… cuz those bacteria are alive. Also, uhm, your understanding of spraying animal waste on crops could use a little shoring up; we do it on purpose, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fertilization_(soil)#Organic_fertilizers.

    But, like I said, I think the end message is right; we need to make crop production a little cleaner and better.

    1 October 2008
  2. csimmons

    They’re talking about irradiating spinach and iceberg lettuce, two foods that I don’t think a lot of people cook, so the contamination is a concern. Plus they’re hoping to increase the number of foods that can be irradiated (parsely, tomatoes, etc.), and that list includes foods that aren’t usually cooked.
    I think the article is spot on that irradiation would be a good addition, but it shouldn’t be the only method of clean crop production – farmers should still make sure they’re watering with clean water and controlling their manure cleanup. The loss of nutrients doesn’t really phase me though, because iceberg lettuce is basically all water anyway – the darker the lettuce the more nutrients it has for you, so iceberg is just a stomach filler.
    What worries me, however, is if irradiation can cause a similar effect on bacteria as antibiotics are – can bacteria become resistant to it? If so, I’m not sure how many more strains of superbacteria I want around…

    2 October 2008
  3. ldeshullo

    Well, since most food safety techniques have been around for quite a while [http://www.foodservice.com/editorials/ed_listing_detail.cfm?&article_id=692] , cobalt-60 (the radiation source) wasn’t discovered until the late 1930’s, and irradiation has yet to achieve stability in our society, I would say the phrase “relatively new” is appropriate. And yes, irradiation has all of those applications, but the complete list of acceptably irradiated foods (http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/irrafood.html) includes both uncooked foods and foods such as meat and poultry, which (hopefully) everyone cooks. The actual end message of my post is that allowing food processing companies to irradiate food will also allow them to ignore anything that occurs before irradiation, the actual contamination, and will not encourage any attempts to improve unsanitary conditions (which needs to happen). Also, by the phrase “dead bacteria or not,” I meant that I don’t care if the bacteria I’m eating are dead and therefore safe, because the fact remains if there are dead bacteria then there is fecal matter. Nonetheless, I would not be talking about the zoo of bacteria that lives on us anyway, which in general are harmless and perfectly normal; I would be talking about the ones such as E. Coli O157:H7 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escherichia_coli_O157:H7), which can be transmitted to our food when an inexperienced slaughterhouse worker makes an improper slice on a cattle carcass, spraying the contents of the intestines all over the meat. When the companies know that the meat can simply be irradiated, they will make no effort to control this and instead just speed up production ($$).
    Finally, in order to use organic fertilizers properly, they must undergo the process of composting. Composting is the decomposition of the organic matter by the bacteria which thrive in the damp, warm conditions. The process itself will run with little encouragement, and any harmful pathogens will be destroyed. The waste itself is broken down, and it is no longer waste; it is useable by plants and trees. This is completely different from contamination of irrigation water, which is not processed, not safe, and not controlled. Contamination is accidental contact with raw manure from either wild animals or nearby feedlots (which tend to have disgustingly filthy conditions). A distinction definitely exists between the two.

    3 October 2008
  4. pweibel

    A couple of things, from what I’ve read cobalt-60 isn’t really used to irradiate food, solely because people don’t like radioactive material used around their food. And, you must not live near a farming area. Because they spread liquid manure on crops before they’re grown. And it smells bad. Which is why you know it’s manure.
    And, as for companies just going willy-nilly with irradiation, that’s a little off too. I’m sure it’s thousands of times more cost efficient to have clean business practices (i.e. trained butches) than just blast all of your meat with irradiation.
    And then bacteria on your skin aren’t ‘harmless’ they’re just harmless when they’re on your skin. Look up ‘staphylococcus.’ And the presence of dead bacteria is not the same as the presence of fecal matter. And you can still get fecal matter even if you use the best practices, especially with eggs (which is why you should always cook them).

    And christine, to answer your question, it is physically impossible to become resistant to irradiation (without growing a lead exoskeleton). Irradiation (typically X-Rays) causes breaks and improper ligations to occur inside the DNA. This causes the cells to either commit suicide or become unable to reproduce. Effectively killing them.

    6 October 2008

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