August 26, 2008
Irradiation a Useful Tool in Promoting Food Safety
By Marjorie Cortez Deseret News
Some 12 years ago, my husband got sick. I had never seen a person so sick outside of a hospital. His fevers were so severe that when they broke, the bed sheets were sopping wet. He couldn't keep anything in his stomach. We battled to keep him hydrated.
He wasn't alone in his misery. He was among a small group of people who contracted salmonella when a restaurant cook failed to properly clean a cutting board where raw chicken had been cut.
At first, my husband refused to go to the doctor. He was certain he had the flu. But after about three days of severe illness, without improvement, I insisted that he go to the doctor. After a few days on high-powered antibiotics, his symptoms subsided and he got well.
Although I have always been careful about food handling, I am meticulous about it now. There are some threats to health over which I have no control. That cannot be said about food handling and cooking. It's all about hygiene and cooking food to recommended temperatures. It's about proper storage of food.
We hope that when we purchase our food that it is free of disease- causing micro-organisms. By and large, there are many checks that help ensure our food supply is among the safest in the world. But there are no guarantees. In recent years, there have been food recalls on everything from ground beef to green onions.
So it surprises me when there's such outcry when the Food and Drug Administration approves a practice to help make our food safer. This past week, the FDA decided to allow spinach and lettuce sellers to treat their products with radiation to safeguard against E. coli and other bugs that can make us sick.
As soon as FDA officials made the announcement, critics were all over the airwaves claiming radiation makes food less nutritious and potentially toxic.
Toxic? Give salmonella a whirl if you want to talk toxic.
These groups do make a couple of good points, though. It's better to detect and stop contamination on farms, ranches, slaughterhouses and processing plants than to irradiate after the fact.
But there are some products that pose a greater risk than others, such as poultry, eggs, beef, oysters and spices. The government has long permitted irradiation of those products.
And I'll concede that irradiation doesn't kill all the bugs, and it does not absolve consumers of careful food handling in their own homes.
But why not make it available to people who want it? Knowing what I know and seeing what I've seen, I want irradiation. Nuke my food. Please.
I need to be careful about throwing around that word, "nuke." We're talking very low levels of radiation here. Just enough to kill micro-organisms. As the government has required irradiated food to be labeled, some consumers have inferred that the product is radioactive. They've been scared away from buying it. That's unfortunate, but they're entitled to make other choices. That's the beauty of a free-market economy.
Food irradiation isn't a magic bullet. But it's one more barrier to micro-organisms that can sicken and kill. I should think that most people would want that extra tool to help keep their families safe, particularly when we know that a fairly high percentage of food-borne illnesses result from poor food-handling practices in the home.
For me, it's one more safeguard, one I'm more than willing to welcome into my home.
Marjorie Cortez, whose kitchen is armed with bleach, antibacterial wipes and sprays, is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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