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Could Irradiation Eradicate E.Coli?

Probably not, but it could help prevent many E.Coli outbreaks and reduce foodborne illness in the United States. As the WSJ editorializes today:

The American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization have all certified that a big reduction in disease could result from irradiating foods.

Says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota: "If even 50% of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact on foodborne disease would be a reduction in 900,000 cases, and 350 deaths." A 2005 CDC assessment agrees: "Food irradiation is a logical next step to reducing the burden of food borne diseases in the United States." . . .

The Centers for Disease Control concluded its investigation by noting: "An overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that irradiation does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make the food unsafe to eat." According to Paisan Loaharanu, a former director at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, "The safety of irradiated foods is well established through many toxicological studies. . . . No other food technology has gone through more safety tests than food irradiation."

If the use of food irradiation would help protect public health, why isn't it used? Anti-technology activists, including many self-appointed "consumer" groups, have given it a bad name (largely due to its tangential association to nuclear power), and spread anti-irradiation misinformation.

Irradiation would not eliminate all food borne illness, to be sure, but there's no reason not to encourage its use where appropriate.

Elliot123 (mail):
Could someone who knows more about this than I explain what the difference is between micro-waving food and irradiating it? Can both be considered irradiation?
12.18.2006 9:39pm
John (mail):
Microwaves are lower frequency electromagnetic radiation--lower than visible light. Microwave photons (the particles that the radiation consists of) are less energetic than those of, say, visible light. Gamma rays, which the WSJ article said are used in food zapping, are of a far higher frequency, and their photons are much, much more energetic than those of microwaves. This huge energy is what opponents suggest create Frankenfood when the photons bounce into ordinary food molecules--unlike the less energetic microwaves which merely cause the subject molecules to vibrate, i.e., get hotter.
12.18.2006 9:54pm
Respondent (mail):
The food may be safe, but the nutrients may be "killed"
12.18.2006 10:21pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
Yes, people are dumb. They don't understand radiation, physics or the like and don't know enough to distinguish the real experts and their consensus opinion from the often exaggerated claims pushed by interest groups and the government.

Yes, higher energy radiation does cause chemical changes that microwaves do not. However, the fraction of molecules so affected is still exceptionally small (so it couldn't remove the nutrition) but since life depends on the stability of long molecules like DNA it is enough to kill microbes. The idea that this causes harmful chemicals in the food is supported by no credible studies and is a priori not very plausible. All sorts of random molecules are created all the time from cosmic rays to normal chemical interactions we've been living with that for millions of years and it doesn't matter much to us if the bacteria's genes are minorly screwed up, we just have to eat it not use it to reproduce.

Ultimately one has a vague, unsubstantiated fear of new technology weighed against a known life-saving benefit. You can reasonably argue the GM foods thing but this seems like a straight up case of emotions overcoming reason.
12.18.2006 10:43pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Maybe some mystical nutrients could be killed. The ones that are known and measurable aren't affected significantly.
12.18.2006 10:45pm
Lior:
What's the cost of irradiating the food though? How does it compare to the cost of other medical/safety initiatives that might save similar numbers of lives?
12.18.2006 10:48pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
But just to be contrarian to my ordinary contrarian nature, maybe all these 'outbreaks' of E. coli and stuff are really just attempts by those who would profit from irradiation to panic the herd into making a psychological leap toward acceptance of the new tech!
12.18.2006 10:48pm
Eric Anondson (mail):
There is a lot of food that is already irradiated. I recall that Dairy Queen sold irradiated meat at some of their restaurants, but ceased when their supplier of irradiated meat (SureBeam) went bankrupt in 2004.
12.18.2006 11:12pm
GMUSL 3L (mail):
Lior, the cost of irradiating the food is negligible; in fact, I suspect that it would be easily outweighed by the gain in not having to pay health care costs and missed work of people who have gotten sick from having meat just a few degrees too rare.

It's not just e. coli, it's also salmonella and any other food-bourne bacteria.

This is good news by anybody annoyed by the "food police" whose tastebud-numbing regulations force restaurants to char meat until it is as uniformly brown, tough, and tasteless as shoe leather. Bring back the rare burgers!
12.18.2006 11:19pm
Shangui (mail):
This is good news by anybody annoyed by the "food police" whose tastebud-numbing regulations force restaurants to char meat until it is as uniformly brown, tough, and tasteless as shoe leather. Bring back the rare burgers!

Except that taste tests seem to show that irradiation has a very negative effect on both taste and texture of meat. You might miss the char (which seems itself to cause cancer or something).
12.18.2006 11:24pm
Glenn W. Bowen (mail):
do people have any natural resistance to salmonella, coliform infection, etc?

if so, does eliminating the bacteria raise the problem of being struck very hard by it when it would be encountered?

I'm thinking along the lines of smallpox, where it has been eliminated, and the only physical stuff of the virus itself is contained a a few labs around the world, with no one having been vaccinated for it in years.
12.19.2006 12:17am
Respondent (mail):
"An overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that irradiation does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make the food unsafe to eat." (emphasis added)
When posting my earlier comment, I apparently missed the part I just italicized. Sorry.
12.19.2006 1:03am
A. Zarkov (mail):
John:

What you wrote is absolutely correct. However we usually say that microwave radiation (as in your oven) is non-ionizing radiation, while irradiation using x-rays or gamma rays is ionizing radiation. When you cook food with microwaves, infrared, or your conventional oven, you use heat to denature the proteins. On the other hand, ionizing radiation affects cell DNA by braking chemical bonds. Further note, microwaves cook food by heating the water in the food, which in turn cooks the food. The terminology is often confusing. If you burn your skin with a heat lamp you get a thermal burn, on the other hand, when you get a sunburn (from the UV in sunlight), you get a radiation burn. The word "burn" is used in two different senses. In a radiation burn the DNA gets changed and you can get skin cancer. A thermal burn simply denatures the proteins in your skin.
12.19.2006 1:25am
Gordo:
But Jeremy Rifkin, noble critic of urbanism and cities, begs to differ - irradiation must be stopped at all costs.

No, I don't have a link. But I can't imagine Mr. Rifkin being in favor of food irradiation.

Yes, yes, I know, Mr. Rifkin can be right about one thing and wrong about another. But he is so spectacularly wrong about issues like food irradiation that his opinions on other subjects must invariably (by me at least) be called into question.
12.19.2006 2:59am
Ragerz (mail):
This is a fascinating issue. Is irradiation of food prohibited by government? If not, is this not a market failure? Should failure to irradiate due to consumer ignorance and irrational fears be considered a market failure??
12.19.2006 3:34am
Bertram (mail):
While I like the savings from storing meat for an extended period of time at room temperature, I'm suspicious of meat processors using the technology to cover up unsanitary conditions. Currently if cow feces gets into the hamburger, it becomes obvious quickly there is a problem. After irridation, it may be that food that is subtlely unwholesome will be distributed for a longer period of time.
12.19.2006 3:47am
BobNSF (mail):

(largely due to its tangential association to nuclear power)


What about security concerns? I seem to recall that there are quite a few seed irradiation units missing in the former Soviet Union and that they and we are quite worried about where the nuclear material has gone. I'm not sure, but wouldn't irradiation equipment, especially in a large food processing plant, be easy pickings for terrorists?
12.19.2006 4:09am
wb (mail):
Food is irradiated most effectively with electrically operated electron accelerators. The power source is inter locked with radiation monitors outside the shielded processing volume. There are no security concerns as the equipment is useless for a radiological weapon. Regarding changes in taste, the largest changes in taste in protein foods (meat) can be eliminated if the food is vacuum shrink wrapped. This is not so much a problem with fruit and vegatables. The biggest change in the taste of foods (and the breakdown of nutriants) comes from cooking, the second from the shipping process. Most of us don't know what tree ripened fruit fresh from the tree tastes like unfortunately.
12.19.2006 6:37am
rusty:
Mike Osterholm at U. Minn is absolutely right, iradiation can reduce the number of food born illnesses and deaths significantly, although our troubles are nothing compared to , say, the turn of the twentieth century.
The number of food borne illnesses in the US today is significant since the people who handle your food are usually not rocket scientists, and the brilliant successes of 20th century food-handling technology are largely defeated by the crass de-emphasis of personal responsibility and personal behavior. I delight in pointing out to my colleagues at our biotech company that they are better off licking the toilet seats in the men's or women's room, than touching the handles of the microwaves in the lunch room. That's where the real crap is....this because most of you disgusting, nose-picking, eye-rubbing, mouth-wiping, toilet non-washing, body-fluid smearing slobs don't wash your hands. Buying overpriced "sanitizers" is a very poor substitute for personal cleanliness. As for avoiding food born illness, you can beat a lot of the food issues by preparing food for yourselves, not coping out to cheap fast food (although the fast food joints are a lot better at clean living than most of you). Just remember to eat only foods that will spoil but eat them before they do.
Still, you can get nailed by the diseased, unexamined people flooding into the US, who among other things, shit in the irrigation water flooding the fields of sunny Kalifornia. Their "deposits" show up in your bags of pre-cut salads. Bank on it.

If you can't make/cook fresh, iradiated foods are a great compromise: the arguments against from the envirofreak/socialists, mostly feeders themselves, are ridiculous. The effect of sterilizing doses of iradiation are miniscule on taste and quality, since you only have to damage a tiny fraction of the genetic material of dangerous microorganisms to render them harmless, but the presence of these oganisms, EVEN AT SIGNIFICANT LEVELS, is itself a microscopic (heh) fraction of the amount of total material in, for instance, a sample of meat and flavor does not have anything to do with mildly digested DNA in food samples, anyway. .
12.19.2006 8:44am
Alex R:
As far as I know, there are few or no prohibitions on selling irradiated meat.

What many consumer groups have insisted on, however, is that irradiated meat be labeled as such, so that consumers can make the choice for themselves. Food processors, I recall, would like to be able to sell irradiated meat without such labeling.

I can see no good argument against such a labeling requirement; personally, I would be happy to try irradiated meat if offered.

(My memory on this may be incorrect, but the point stands...)
12.19.2006 9:01am
Andy Freeman (mail):
Irradiation is simply uncouth. Food should be more expensive. Cheap food just lets more poor people live, and live badly if you know what I mean. So fat and such bad taste.

They should get a few hundred grams of organic food a day. And wash my car.
12.19.2006 9:01am
Tom952 (mail):
I watched the saga of the "Vindicator" irradiation plant in Florida for years. The anti-irradiation faction is very effective, even without the benefit of facts supporting their claims.

Having contracted diarrhea several times from lettuce, I stopped eating it. I was reinforced in this decision by the knowledge that lettuce is a nutritional zero, and lettuce growers are magnets for illegal immigrants.
12.19.2006 9:55am
Waldensian (mail):

this because most of you disgusting, nose-picking, eye-rubbing, mouth-wiping, toilet non-washing, body-fluid smearing slobs don't wash your hands.
. . .
Still, you can get nailed by the diseased, unexamined people flooding into the US, who among other things, shit in the irrigation water flooding the fields of sunny Kalifornia.
I like your outlook on humanity.

If you don't have children, I think you may not enjoy the experience. It's often quite... biological.

If you do have children, I would LOVE to hear about the measures you've put in place at home to combat germs.


I delight in pointing out to my colleagues at our biotech company that they are better off licking the toilet seats in the men's or women's room, than touching the handles of the microwaves in the lunch room.

So, how many times a day do you point this out? Any other favorite zingers? Given your likely views on eggnog and punchbowls, I'll bet you're the life of the company holiday party!!
12.19.2006 9:55am
bornyesterday (mail) (www):
Irradiated food?

What? Is it 1950 again?

There is something to be said for potatoes with shelf-lives longer than my own.
12.19.2006 9:58am
Houston Lawyer:
Speaking of unsanitary, my brother-in-law is a preacher. After every service, he goes through the usual routine of greeting the congregation as they leave the church. Then he goes and thoroughly washes his hands. Hand shaking is very unsanitary.

Most people don't understand that many natural foods, such as strawberries, contain fairly high levels of carcinogens. Yet they get all itchy if someone like Rifkin tells them not to each irradiated or genetically modified food.

I only buy "organic" food if they have something that is not in the regular food isles. It costs more and has a shorter shelf life. It doesn't taste better.
12.19.2006 10:26am
Waldensian (mail):

I only buy "organic" food if they have something that is not in the regular food isles. It costs more and has a shorter shelf life. It doesn't taste better.

Agreed on all fronts.

I worked with a toxicologist who was firmly opposed to eating "organic" foods. She argued that plant strains exhibiting hardiness toward insect predators (i.e., plants that survive best when no pesticides are allowed) tend to be chock full of stuff you don't want to ingest, either.

She also refused to eat mushrooms, and noted that most people overestimate the dangers posed by foods while underestimating the dangers posed by asteroids.

Awesome dinner conversationalist.
12.19.2006 11:09am
Captain Holly (mail):

While I like the savings from storing meat for an extended period of time at room temperature, I'm suspicious of meat processors using the technology to cover up unsanitary conditions. Currently if cow feces gets into the hamburger, it becomes obvious quickly there is a problem. After irridation, it may be that food that is subtlely unwholesome will be distributed for a longer period of time.


I hate to break this to you, but almost every meat contains traces of fecal material. It's virtually impossible to kill, decapitate, skin, disembowel, and dismember a 1,000-pound animal without getting some fecal bacteria on it. Which is why you should cook your meat thoroughly before eating it.

Just remember: Cooked feces won't hurt you, uncooked feces will.
12.19.2006 11:31am
Triangle_Man:
In addition to eliminating pathogenic organisms, irradiation can also increase the shelf-life of foods by eliminating the organisms that cause food to rot.
12.19.2006 11:54am
Frankenfood fan:
I just LOVE that the anti-tech Luddites call the stuff Frankenfood, in an attempt to call up the scary monster image.

Wasn't the point of the story that the supposed monster wasn't the problem, but the unthinking peasants with pitchforks, attacking what they didn't understand?

Priceless.
12.19.2006 11:54am
MS (mail):
Waldensian,

Your friend's point about pesticides is well supported. Bruce Ames has been arguing as much for 10 years. But what about fertilizers? Is it so wrong for me to spend a little extra to reduce the nitrates in my drinking water?

Also, because most large asteroids have been accounted for in the last decade, NASA recently downgraded the risk of death-by-asteroid to 1 in 200,000. So I'd start washing my lettuce if I were you.
12.19.2006 11:56am
cathyf:
Schwan's sells irradiated meat. I like my burgers cooked medium-rare, and I feel a lot more comfortable if it's been irradiated. The only other place I buy hamburger from is a local butcher. He slaughters in the back behind the shop, and when you walk in you can tell by the smell (or lack thereof!) that his sanitation is impecable. (He butchers most of the prize steers and hogs from this area.) Sure, it works out to paying about $3-$5 per pound that way, but I'm more than happy to pay the extra freight to avoid having Sam and Ella come as uninvited guests to my picnic...
12.19.2006 12:06pm
Sigivald (mail):
Frankenfood fan: Well, the real problem was that the creature's creator rejected it after creating it, from my memory of the original story.

(In the original version, not the films, the creature was not only extremely intelligent, but perfectly literate and well-spoken; his only inherent defect was his hideous appearance.)

I'd be happy to eat irradiated meat, but I'll still cook my burgers at least medium - I don't like the texture of rare ground beef.
12.19.2006 12:26pm
Waldensian (mail):

Also, because most large asteroids have been accounted for in the last decade, NASA recently downgraded the risk of death-by-asteroid to 1 in 200,000. So I'd start washing my lettuce if I were you.

Point taken, although 1 in 200,000 (I'm assuming over the typical "70-year life span") is still impressive, at least by the absurd standards of the risk assessment biz.

Do you have a link to the NASA study -- I confess I love that topic.
12.19.2006 2:00pm
Jim Hu:
It's E. coli, not E. Coli. I blame MS-Word's autocorrect.
12.19.2006 5:11pm
Elliot123 (mail):
OK. I have to ask since there seem to be some people here who actually do know what they are talking about. Is a small home irradiator anywhere on the horizon? Even possible? Something I could set up on the kitchen counter next to the microwave, blender, and Vegematic?
12.19.2006 7:44pm
Colin (mail):
A microwave is a small home irradiator. If you mean an ionizing irradiator (like those used to sterilize foods), then I doubt it for two reasons. The first is the need for a radiological source for the irradiator, which I don't see becoming commercially available for personal, private use. That's just a guess, though, as I don't know the technical details about how these devices work. The other reason is that I don't see much of a market developing for a kitchen-counter irradiator, given the public's general uneasiness about the word "radiation." Even if a kitchen-counter device were legally and technically feasible, I think its limited appeal would make it very expensive to develop and market.
12.19.2006 8:00pm
A. Zarkov (mail):
"Is a small home irradiator anywhere on the horizon?"

I doubt it. I don't know the actual radiation levels used for food, but I think they would be too high for home use. You can buy something like the Sampson Ultrasonic Food Washer, which also uses ozone, and a nanosilver coating to remove pesticide residues and dirt. The machine is expensive ($345), and it's not clear to me that it really gets you more than rinsing the produce with water. I have seen the actual USDA pesticide residue data, and most of the levels are below the minimum detectable amount. Pesticides in food is really a non-problem. I don't think the Samson Washer or its equivalent would help with E. coli infected spinach. Mercury in fish is another story. Some fish like Shark or Swordfish do have high enough mercury content so I might worry about a small child eating it as a steady diet. I don't know if any government agency monitors fish. I suspect none. I eat range-fed beef because the USDA Mad Cow disease-monitoring program is inadequate. Their sample sizes are too small, and a key assumption they use is false. They think they only need inspect "downer" cattle. False. We know from European, UK and Japanese data that ambulatory cows can be infected with Mad Cow disease.
12.19.2006 8:20pm
Waldensian (mail):

I eat range-fed beef because the USDA Mad Cow disease-monitoring program is inadequate.


Two cows are walking down the road. The first cow says to the other, "I'm really worried about this mad cow disease problem!"

"Well, I'm not," says the second cow.

"Why the hell not?!?" asks the first cow.

"Because I'm a duck!"
12.20.2006 1:21pm