Irradiation is little used and a lot misunderstood, but it can destroy the microorganisms responsible for food-borne illnesses and extend the shelf life of perishable foods. It is an FDA-regulated food preservation method, and currently it is allowed on foods such as spices, pork, poultry, and some fruits and vegetables. The FDA is considering approval for red meats.
"It's really hard to process raw meat without getting some contamination on it, but if it's irradiated, the bacteria are killed," says April Mason, Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service assistant director and a foods and nutrition specialist.
"Irradiation is one more safety precaution. It's not in lieu of other safety precautions, such as proper cooking, but irradiation destroys the organism before it reaches the consumer."
Richard Linton, Purdue Extension specialist in food safety, says, "Cooking and irradiation are perhaps the only existing ways today to get rid of microorganisms on food."
An instance where irradiation would've been particularly helpful, Mason explains, was last spring when microbial organisms on strawberries and raspberries -- foods that often aren't cooked -- caused an outbreak of food-borne illness.
It also might have avoided the Hudson Foods recall of 25 million pounds of red meat, including hamburger patties, that may have been contaminated with E. coli , a microorganism that can cause illness and even death in those who consume it. A 1993 E. coli outbreak in the Pacific Northwest, in which hundreds of people were sickened and half a dozen children died, still lingers in people's memories. Food-borne illnesses are never far from the headlines, making Americans question the safety of their food supply.
But consumers are reluctant to embrace irradiation because it is a technology they know little about and don't understand. George Pauli, director at the FDA Office of Pre-Market Approval, Division of Product Policy, says irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, as some people believe. Pauli says the source of radiant energy is controlled and limited to cobalt 60 and cesium 137.
"It's known that they can't make the food radioactive," he says.
Different levels of irradiation are used on different foods, and those regulations may vary from country to country, Pauli says. Mason says all irradiated foods must be labeled with "radura," the international sign for irradiation, and must say that the food has been treated with radiation. So any consumer who's still hesitant to eat irradiated food can avoid it.
Linton says, "If I had a crystal ball that could predict the future, I'd say the Hudson hamburger incident may lead to consumer acceptance of irradiation in the next four or five years."
Mason agrees and adds: "Data show that consumers will accept food irradiation when they learn about it and taste irradiated food."
She also says the recent E.coli outbreak may push along the approval process for irradiation of red meat. Pauli says the petition for irradiation of all red meat was received in July 1994. Since then, the petitioner's data have been studied to determine what effects irradiation may have on hamburger and other types of red meat. Three main areas studied are: whether any chemical changes occur that can cause toxicity, how the microbial profile changes, and whether the meat's nutrient value is affected.
"The request is for all red meat to be approved at once," Pauli says, "but if we can do some ahead of others, then we may."
Pauli says it's impossible to predict if and when approval may occur. After his staff members develop a recommendation, they must provide a written explanation of the reasoning behind their decision. When a final decision is reached, it and the rationale supporting it must be published in the Federal Register. Although a decision is effective immediately, 30 days are allowed for objections to be raised.
"The decision must be legally and scientifically sound," Pauli says. "We must make sure nothing is overlooked."
In the meantime, Linton recommends thoroughly cooking meat, keeping hands and cooking utensils clean, and avoiding cross-contamination. He says 1 tablespoon of bleach per gallon of water is a good sanitizer for food preparation areas. Some over-the-counter cleaning solutions are OK, he says, but consumers should read label directions carefully.
Sources: April Mason, (765) 494-8252; e-mail, email@example.com
Richard Linton, (765) 494-6481; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
George Pauli, (202) 418-3090
Writer: Andrea McCann, (765) 494-8406; e-mail. email@example.com
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org
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