Stewart 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.