In the latest of a series of regulatory rollbacks, the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided in October to approve the use of irradiation for sanitation of imported produce. And though Americans are warming up to the technology, they may never know if it's been used on their food.
The USDA has already approved irradiation for food categories, such as pork, wheat flour, poultry and fresh and frozen meat; petitions are pending for many ready-to-eat foods, including bagged salads, deli meats and prepared vegetables. The agency permits irradiated beef in the school lunch program. And pursuant to recent legislation, the Food and Drug Administration must now consider allowing food processing firms to use the term cold pasteurization instead of irradiated on labels.
Industry associations such as the Grocery Manufacturers of America laud the process, and many health authorities see it as the best defense against the more than 70 million cases of foodborne illness every year. But consumer acceptance and demand are what's driving its spreading use.
The public's attitude toward irradiation is softening, in part because of last year's highly publicized meat recalls. ConAgra Foods endured a record beef recall, and more than 27 million pounds of deli turkey and chicken were recalled because of listeria concerns. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, also heightened consumer fear regarding the food supply.
The International Food Information Council Foundation studied the subject in April 2002. To the question, "How likely are you to continue to purchase your current brands of food products if they include the phrase, 'treated with irradiation for your safety' on the label?," 63 percent of 751 adults were somewhat or likely to purchase those products. Higher positives were reported with the term cold pasteurization.
Experts still disagree as to whether irradiation is safe. According to opponents, led by the watchdog group Public Citizen, "research dating to the 1950s has revealed a wide range of problems in animals that ate irradiated food." The organization is also adamant that irradiation destroys vitamins, essential fatty acids and other nutrients.
Proponents, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, believe the technology is a useful weapon in combating foodborne bacteria. In a prepared statement, the organization said, "In fact, the changes induced by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to determine whether or not a food has been irradiated."
Federal law says irradiated foods must be marked, but sometimes, especially with produce, there's no space for a label or the print is too small to see. Furthermore, restaurants that use irradiated ingredients are not required to tell consumers.
The National Organic Program does not allow irradiation to decontaminate food, so buying certified organic products will be the only way consumers can be sure that their food has not been treated.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIV/number 1/p. 11