The federal government is in the final stages of approving irradiation, a radical sterilization process that bombards foods with gamma rays, for use on pork and produce. Although it will be years before irradiated foods are commonplace, widespread introduction of the process may bring significant changes to the food supply.
Meat producers claim that the technology will eliminate incidents of trichinosis, a potentially fatal parasitic infection that continues to originate from American pork supplies. The produce industry wants the process on hand in place of chemical fumigants to fight any new infestation problem such as the Mediterranean fruit fly.
Meanwhile, irradiation opponents feel that an insufficient amount of research has been conducted on the health effects of irradiated food consumption. There is also the question of whether consumers will accept and purchase food that has been exposed to gamma rays.
Public Comment Stage
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently announced its intention to expand irradiation's approved applicability beyond its currently limited use. The pending regulation is in a public comment stage before the agency's final review, and subsequent action, on the process. The agency, which oversees the Food and Drug Administration, is expected to decide the matter this fall.
Irradiation has been used experimentally since the 1940s. At that time, Army technicians were intrigued by gamma rays' ability to dramatically extend the shelf life of food. These beams of energy, which emanate from the isotope cobalt 60, completely penetrate food items and destroy bacteria without altering internal temperatures or visible appearances.
The process sterilizes the food and, secondarily, slows spoilage. Currently, the food industry is permitted to use irradiation to inhibit sprouting on potatoes and to destroy bacteria in spices.
Spice Irradiation Unopposed
Decades of research have shown that no residue remains on food that has been exposed to low levels of gamma rays. A frequently used analogy is that the process is similar to having an X-ray: The energy disappears when the technique is completed or turned off. Furthermore, the cobalt 60 does not cause radioactivity and is non-nuclear.
Nevertheless, irradiation remains controversial despite the pending approval.
"I can cite test after test that raises serious questions (about irradiation's) safety," said Sidney Wolfe, director of Public Citizen's Health Research Group, a Washington-based consumer advocacy organization. "One basic notion is that irradiation kills bacteria and microorganisms. But minutes after you zap (food items) they could become re-infested."
Wolfe said that his group did not oppose irradiation of spices because the public's exposure to such foods would be minimal. The most recent expansion of the technology into produce and pork is another matter, he said.
"Irradiating fresh produce would affect everyone. It's now a different ballgame with much different stakes, and more food is affected," Wolfe said.
Officials at the FDA responsible for formulating the irradiation regulation dismiss criticism about its safety.
"Nothing new has come up in 40 years (to discredit) the safety of food irradiation," said Sanford A. Miller, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "Irradiated food is indistinguishable from non-irradiated items. In low-dose (exposure levels) the nutritional losses are insignificant and less than with other preservation techniques."
There is some question about how much irradiated food will ever reach local markets. Pork producers have argued that they need the technology to guarantee that meat exported to Europe was free of the trichinae parasites. Initially, most domestic irradiated pork would be shipped out of the United States.
In the event that the process became more prevalent, Miller said his agency would require some kind of label or identifying symbol that would advise consumers that they were purchasing irradiated foods.
Not Involved--The recent wine scandal in Austria, where producers were found to be placing an antifreeze in wine, has sent shock waves throughout the Central European wine-producing area. Particularly hard hit have been the Germans, whose labels resembled those of Austria in appearance and language.
The German Wine Information Board wants to make sure that there isn't any confusion between the antifreeze-laden Austrian wines and the chemical-free Greman ausleses. The New York-based information office sent out a bulletin recently stating that no traces of diethylglycol have been found in their wines.
"Although Austrian and German wine labels often appear similar in style and terminology, consumers can easily identify German wines by the official German A.P. number or the phrase 'Product of Germany,' " the announcement stated.