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New Federal Action Allows Use of Irradiation

January 16, 1986|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

Irradiation, one of the food industry's more unusual and controversial technologies, has been approved by the federal government for use on produce.

The recent action by the Health and Human Services Department permits the treatment of fresh fruits and vegetables with gamma rays, or non-radioactive beams of energy that kill insects and bacteria that may be present.

Three decades of research has found irradiation to be capable of greatly extending an item's shelf life by eliminating bacteria responsible for perishability. Approving the use of radiation for produce also allows the agricultural community to enlist the process as a means of combatting future crop infestations such as from fruit flies.

Less Dependent on Chemicals

Eventually, the technology will make the farm sector less dependent upon chemical fumigants, many of which have questionable safety records.

The new regulation requires that all items that have been exposed to gamma rays be labeled as such and carry an identifying symbol that depicts a simple flower enclosed in a broken circle.

In a move that may help create public acceptance for the process, the labeling regulation does not call for manufacturers or retailers to actually use the word irradiation. Instead, those foods that have undergone the treatment will carry statements such as "picowaved," "picowaved to control spoilage," and "picowaved to extend shelf life."

Both the logo and the word, picowave, have origins in Europe, where the process has been used widely for years. In fact, the agency estimates that more that 20 countries currently allow the sale of irradiated food.

The latest move by the federal government significantly expands irradiation's applicability in this country. In addition to fresh fruits and vegetables, food manufacturers can now use the process on wheat, herbs, spices and pork.

Although consumers would currently be hard pressed to find any irradiated foods in retail channels, the federal government will decide by 1988 whether to drop the picowave statements and rely exclusively on the irradiation logo to inform consumers of the process.

Critics of the technology claim that there is some possibility that consumption of irradiated foods might increase an individual's long-term exposure to low-level radiation. Government officials dismiss these fears as scientifically groundless and say that irradiation leaves no residue on food.

Ageless Chickens--While irradiation keeps pork and produce from spoiling, researchers at the University of Delaware are working the same wonders with highly perishable poultry. In this case, different tactics are employed.

Food scientists at the school's Newark campus found that they could double the refrigerated shelf life of fresh chicken by adding a common preservative to the bird and then filling the packaging material with carbon dioxide, according to a report in the Journal of Food Science.

The research involved treating the meat with potassium sorbate and then adding carbon dioxide to the package's interior. The combination kept the meat from spoiling for as long as 10 days at typical store refrigeration temperatures of 50 degrees. Normally, chicken spoils after only three days in supermarket cases.

The success of the Delaware research does not necessarily mean that shoppers are about to discover meat cases stocked with gas-filled chicken parts.

More likely is that the information will prove helpful for food transporters involved with shipping poultry long distances to firms that then produce luncheon meats and frankfurters, according to the article.

Afraid to Eat--The activities of the chicken preservers and food irradiators are sure to be counted among the developments that have led to the coining of a new term in an English medical journal.

After identifying increasing incidents of an eating disorder stemming from a fear of modern foods, a Scottish physiologist, Reginald Passmore, titled the syndrome, trophophobia. The story was featured in a recent newsletter from the National Council Against Health Fraud.

"Trophophobia is engendered by the constant media barrage that makes people believe modern foods are poisonous, allergy producing, inadequate and so forth," Passmore states.

Foods likely to be shunned by those suffering from this affliction include meat and dairy fats, eggs, salt, sugar and alcoholic beverages.

Celebrating Alternatives--This weekend's Natural Health Convention at the Pasadena Conference Center is devoted to showcasing companies and individuals who promote products, therapies and life styles distanced from the traditional medical and health community.

A wide range of nutritional information is provided during three days of exhibits and seminars, which begin Friday.

Some presentations are so controversial that the official program prominently displays a disclaimer above the seminar schedule stating that the event's sponsor, the National Health Federation, "does not necessarily endorse the statements or claims made by speakers or exhibitors."

The topics include: "What's New in Underground Medicine," "Healing and Preventing Incurable Disease," and "The Electro-Magnetic Field and Its Benefits."

One particular seminar may prove interesting to health officials. Its title: "Fluoridation Kills Over 50,000 Persons Per Year."

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