Insights by Goldie
Food irradiation: two words that should never connect

Sound Consumer | October 2008

by Goldie Caughlan
Quality Standards Specialist

Last month the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), without prior notice, published a “Final Rule,” amending food additive regulations to “provide for the safe use of ionizing radiation for control of food-borne pathogens, and extension of shelf-life, in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach, at a dose up to 4.0 kiloGray (kGy).” (Docket No. FDA-1999-F-2405)

The Final Rule, published on August 22, a Friday in late summer, was easily overlooked by a nation on vacation. The 30-day comment period has expired. The FDA’s action was unexpected, but a petition from 2000 still seeks irradiation of many foods.

We’ve learned it was at the FDA’s suggestion that the National Food Processors joined with the irradiation industry to file a separate petition, which the FDA said they would “fast-track” — and did! We get it: This is a trial balloon. If we just quietly roll over, the greater the likelihood we’ll get more of the same!

Last year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) colluded with the Almond Growers of California (a marketing group)and now steam or chemical “pasteurization” of all U.S.-grown almonds is mandatory to address a vague threat of salmonella. The FDA saw no reason to require labels to inform consumers that almonds — even if labeled “raw” — are pasteurized.

Such regulatory arrogance is similar to the irradiation issue; both reflect the regulators’ extremely cynical approaches to food safety — substituting appeasement of industry for enforcement of safe production practices and consumer choice!

The back story on irradiation In 1986 fruits and vegetables were approved for irradiation at a level of exposure one quarter of that now approved for spinach and iceberg lettuce. The 1986 regulations address slow ripening and maturing, and killing bug infestations.

The new ruling ominously foreshadows the FDA’s future direction: increased reliance on massive levels of irradiation sufficient to kill other “bugs,” such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria. (Irradiation doesn’t kill viruses on foods or destroy the prions associated with Mad Cow disease.)

Seventy percent of U.S. spinach is from California’s Salinas Valley and much of it is processed in one facility with years of safety violations with the FDA. Some 26 million servings a week still are washed, bagged and shipped to stores and restaurants nationwide from that processor.

In August 2006 E. coli outbreaks in salads from the facility occurred coast-to-coast, sickening 200 people and tragically killing three.

It is an outrage when regulators fail to regulate and instead promote food irradiation, a dangerous technology, as being safe and providing “wholesome” food. Irradiation will not clean up the sewer of filth resulting from uncontrolled industrialization and consolidation of most of our nation’s food.

Dangerous food poisoning outbreaks and recalls will continue to escalate and endanger our health if shoddy practices are the rule. We must hold industry and the regulators accountable.

Where we are now PCC never will knowingly sell any irradiated food. We will continue to source as much produce as possible from local, Northwest growers. Almost all our produce will continue to be USDA certified organic, including spinach and other greens. The USDA certified organic regulations forbid all uses of ionizing irradiation.

All non-organic spinach or iceberg lettuce sold at retail, if irradiated, currently must state “treated with ionizing irradiation,” or similar words, and display the “radura,” a symbol resembling a flower. But if combined with any other ingredients, no labels are required! Restaurants and institutions never are required to label irradiated foods.

Since July 2007 we’ve expected the FDA to rule on whether even this limited label information will continue, since the FDA’s stated view is that such labels may alarm consumers needlessly.

The Food Safety Inspection Service, a division of the USDA, also is now considering approving irradiation of whole beef carcasses at slaughterhouses. The beef industry is hot on the idea.

Will consumers accept massive, nutrient-destroying, dangerous ionizing radiation as a means of controlling E. coli? Or will we demand that slaughter houses clean up and that beef producers discontinue reliance on inhumane and filthy confined animal feedlot operations?

Otherwise, irradiation might destroy the pathogen but the feces that carry it remain. So, too, do the shoddy practices that cause E. coli to sicken and kill. Learn more at the Web sites above and take action!

More about: FDA, food politics, irradiated food, USDA

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