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Nuclear the Grocery Store

Author: the Inkslinger

Food IrradiationStewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, once wrote that "we are as gods and might as well get good at it." I was reminded of that wisdom last week by two pieces of news: that the Large Hadron Collider is maybe about to eat the Earth for dinner.

And that the FDA has approved radiation as a treatment for the lettuce and spinach you and I will place on our own plates. If it seems like the term "weird science" is rapidly ceasing to have any meaning at all, you're right. I think it's pretty much all going to be weird science from here on out, and that's all the more reason for extra precaution on our parts. Because once you start unleashing atoms, the law of unintended consequences kicks right in.

Nowhere does it loom larger than in the issue of food irradiation, a technology where unexpected side-effects may far outnumber the intended benefits. In response to the FDA's decision to allow more nuked foods into our pantries, we've created a quick guide to food irradiation, including why it might not be such a hot idea and what we can do to keep it out of our kitchens. Take a minute or two to digest it and save yourself some heartburn down the road:

The history of food is the story of the struggle to preserve it. From salt and smoke to refrigeration and pasteurization, human ingenuity has cooked up a full menu of strategies to save our supper for another day. The latest technology to be dished out is food irradiation, a method that's back on our plates with word of a new FDA ruling that allows iceberg lettuce and spinach to be treated with radiation to prevent e. coli.

Food producers like irradiation because it's an easy and relatively inexpensive way to prevent spoilage and allow food to travel farther and last longer. Though it sounds like a futuristic technology, food irradiation dates to the earliest days of the 20th century, when scientists received the first patent for a food preservation process that used radiation to kill bacteria hidden in food.

Today's food irradiation techniques operate on the same principle but use modern sources of radioactivity like electron radiation similar to that created by tube TVs, gamma radiation from cesium or cobalt, and X-rays like those used in medicine but millions of times more powerful. When food is exposed to these types of radiation any microbes, insects, viruses, and other pathogens it is carrying are destroyed while the food itself remains non-radioactive.

Food companies that use the technology say it is safe for consumers and good for public health. Critics of food irradiation hold a decidedly different opinion. In their view, the technology is being used to cover up unwholesome products produced by an out-of-balance industrial food chain. They also point to research that's discovered a variety disturbing things about irradiated foods.

Here's what you need to know:

• According to the Center for Food Safety, research has shown that irradiation dramatically lowers the nutritional content of foods?in some cases by nearly 100%. For example, up to 80% of the vitamin A in eggs and up to 95% of the lutein in green beans is destroyed by the process.

• Evidence provided by the Organic Consumers Association finds that irradiation creates new compounds in foods. These by-products can include carcinogens like benzene and toluene; innumerable free radicals, which damage healthy cells; and "unique radiolytic compounds," which don't occur naturally in food and many of which have been found to cause gene mutations.

• According to Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety, one such family of compounds, 2-alkylcyclobutanones, has never been seen by science before and is believed to occur only in irradiated fatty foods.

• Numerous studies cited by Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety have uncovered serious problems with animal diets containing irradiated foods. The ingestion of these foods has been linked to cancer, reproductive difficulties, birth defects, internal bleeding, chromosome damage, organ damage, vitamin deficiencies, and other effects.

Here's what you can do to keep irradiated foods off your table:

• Understand food irradiation labeling laws: The FDA requires the labeling of whole, unprocessed irradiated foods but not packaged foods that contain irradiated ingredients. For example, if irradiated onions are used in a can of chili, this fact probably won't be mentioned on the can's label. But if those same onions are sold raw in the produce department, their package or display must say "Treated With Irradiation" and be marked with the Radura symbol (see picture above). These regulations do not apply to restaurants, schools, hospitals and other institutions, which can serve irradiated foods without notice.

• Be aware that the FDA has proposed changing these regulations so that only those irradiated foods that are "materially changed" by the irradiation process would be labeled. The agency is also suggesting that labeling language replace all references to irradiation with the terms "cold pasteurized" or "electronically pasteurized." 7Gen will keep its readers advised of any changes to irradiation regulations.

• Buy organic. According to federal standards, organically-produced foods cannot be irradiated.

• Buy locally-produced foods at co-ops, farmers markets and other "home-grown" outlets. Given the specialized facilities needed to irradiate food, these are unlikely to be treated.

• Avoid processed foods, which can contain irradiated ingredients without stating so on their labels.

• Inspect labels and supermarket displays carefully. The labeling of irradiated foods can legally occur in very fine print.

• Buy organic and/or "natural" herbs and spices in bulk from reputable natural food suppliers. Conventional herbs and spices are often irradiated and a loophole in the law allows them to go unlabeled. Teas are also exempt from labeling.

For more information about irradiated food visit the Center for Food Safety and Public Citizen, which maintains excellent fact sheets on irradiation's problems and the existing scientific research.


strberri35 picture
What is this world coming to! I thought there was something seriously going on with the spoilage and ecoli of vegetables. Now we know probably not everything but at least seventh generation is giving us more of an understanding of it. I am gonna be more careful now at looking at labels for those signs. I look at labels a lot now but I'm gonna look more often now. Thanks seventh generation.
baldwinbonney picture
In general, whether the leafy goods, or even tomatoes, come from a foreign country or your backyard, they could have e. coli on them. The reason for this is that the bacteria is naturally occurring in the soil. The best way to remove it is by washing your veggies with water and about a teaspoon of vinegar per gallon of water. However, outbreaks would be much milder and less common if we were to all buy produce locally. As to the use of using UV light to kill off the "bugs", though it would work, it would only be effective on the areas of the produce that was directly exposed to it. So, all the dirt that may be harbouring bacteria just past that outside leaf would be unaffected. I think the general idea of buying locally and just washing food, through basic public outreach/education efforts of washing before you eat would be much cheaper, and better for everyone involved.
DrChuckJD picture
Before making up one's mind on the subject of the irradiation of food, it would be proper to look at other sources. I was disturbed that many of the footnotes in the documents I was reading referred to sources from other activists or older research which was not clearly linked to the types of practices being used in connection with the irradiation of vegtetables in the article "Nuking Our Food: Irradiation Heats Up". Headlines like that and "Nuclear the Grocery Store" are not especially helpful if getting at thetruth is one's aim, are they? After reading the document posted on 7Gen and the comments on this blog; I went to some of the linked documents and sponsoring group home pages (where I read through their reference materials and the biographies of their staff and Boards). Then I went to the following industry sponsored site. Finally, I went to the International Atomic Energy Agency and found the following:
timgalownia picture
Yes, UV light has been shown to kill bacteria and kill the DNA of viruses. Not sure why this would not be a viable option to radiation. I am sure somewhere along the line it comes down to money, someone of interest in the food or irradiation industry stands to have their pockets lined by using this method
altaira picture
Don't worry about the super collider. It's making the same kind of collisions that cosmic rays do on the earth every single day. Cosmic rays can go anywhere, though, and the super collider is underground in switzerland, where the results of the collisions can be studied. More insight into the workings of the universe...
lisaclotho1 picture
Just one more reason to start a community garden. We have an awesome Farmer's Market here in Port Townsend with organic produce and a great co-op, but sometimes it is good to go backwards into time and grow your own. I remember my Grandparents and also my Father (still does) growing their gardens and going out to pick our veggies and fruits off the vine. With a full time job, I have forgotten to get back to basics, and will make it a priority to start a garden this upcoming Spring - and perhaps share it with a few neighbors and friends!
arogers1 picture
i say that if we want healthy germ free food we need to take action. we don't need the government saying it's ok to nuke our food so it's safe. we need to be keeping our food safe. does anyone even know where their lettuce and spinach come from? ecuador? el salvador? mexico? or your own back yard? something tells me if we bring people and food back together we will never have to worry about e coli or salmonella from salad greens. power to the people! support your local farmers
kgreen picture
fionagrape picture
To quote a PHD on PBS who was talking about irradiating food as a way to ensure against E coli coming from produce grown in filthy water, "Poop that has been irradiated is still poop" I don't want to seem like I'm over reacting, but when you think of it that way, we aren't getting real food any more. How much radiation does it take to make it safe to eat poop? Then ask yourself how many nutrients can survive the same blast.
jhw picture
It seems interesting to me that some of the very foods that have had "problems" with E coli or salmonella are the ones that are subject to irradiation. Because the cynic in me has a difficult time seeing how spinach can cause salmonella (maybe the people who handle the spinach). The more foods are targeted as problem foods, the more foods can be irradiated, the more the government and big business have a say in what we eat.
klenhart picture
Shameful and disgusting.
powerteams picture
Just one more avenue to secure the agenda to eliminate 80% of the population in the name of safety and profits. It goes beyond imagination where we are headed not only on this subject, but get ready because we are in for a wake up call that will end in the Twilight Zone. God help us all!
ivy424 picture
I was just at my local farmer's market this Sunday and this topic came up. Would UV light work to eliminate bacteria on veggies is a safe way? I need to look into this. Kirstin