Too Hot to Touch

Apr 11, 2008 4:06pm

You can wash your lettuce until there’s nothing left of it.  But nothing we routinely do in America — not even rinsing produce in chlorine disinfectants — will get rid of all the bacteria that cause food poisoning.  That’s the view, at least of a group of Agriculture Department researchers.  They say the most effective solution they see is irradiation — exposing food to a beam of charged particles.  Brendan A. Niemira, from the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service near Philadelphia, was on a team making a presentation yesterday in New Orleans to the American Chemical Society, saying they found irradiation killed 99.9 percent of the E. coli found in spinach and lettuce leaves.  Conventional rinsing, they said, never got past the surface, and were almost useless when bacteria congregated in "biofilms," colonies where they form protective outside layers. Irradiation is one of those subjects that’s festered for years; witness this decade-old BACKGROUNDER from the University of Georgia.  Niemira’s colleague Ben Miller, of the University of Rochester, told Dr. Diane Kang of our Medical Unit, "Irradiation has a bad rep with the public," but he called it "great" — a safe way to remove contaminants from fresh food.  40 other countries have approved its use, and the FDA allows limited use on meats. The CDC has some background info HERE; the folks who wrote it are all for it.  They say it kills pathogens, and does not make your food radioactive. But what do you think of when you think of radiation?  Cancer?  Genetic damage?  Unknowable risks?  The FDA has been in the process of reviewing food irradiation for broader use, and has provoked responses such as THIS one last year from the Center for Food Safety: "Radiation can do strange things to food, by creating substances called ‘unique radiolytic products.’  These irradiation byproducts include a variety of mutagens — substances that can cause gene mutations, polyploidy (an abnormal condition in which cells contain more than two sets of chromosomes), chromosome aberrations (often associated with cancerous cells), and dominant lethal mutations (a change in a cell that prevents it from reproducing) in human cells. Making matters worse, many mutagens are also carcinogens." Believers insist it’s safe.  Doubters are not persuaded.  In the meantime, you have to eat. (Above: the FDA’s current symbol, required on food that’s been irradiated.  How often have you seen it?)

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