Friday, August 22, 2008

Irradiating your Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

Sometimes, we should trust our instincts.

I should begin by saying that I am a huge fan of science, and I am astounded by the cool things that we have learned to do thanks to creative scientists who "think out of the box" and question our assumptions and challenge our instincts.

Sometimes, however, science offers us the opportunity to do things that our instincts tell us we should not do. I would put the cloning of animals for meat production in this category. Similarly, we have now learned what many people instinctively knew or should have known - that you should not have animals eating their own species (e.g., mad cow disease being spread by cattle eating the remains of cattle).

Okay, on to the topic of my post - the FDA's announcement:

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a final rule today amending the food additive regulations to provide for the safe use of ionizing radiation for the control of foodborne pathogens and extension of shelf-life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach. FDA has determined that this use of ionizing radiation will not adversely affect the safety of the food.

* * *

This final rule will permit the irradiation of fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach to a maximum absorbed dose of 4.0 kGy, which is effective in reducing microbial pathogens that have been associated with these crops in the past.
The notion that we would need to irradiate lettuce and spinach in order to make them safe to eat is rather astounding. What does that say about our food system? Criticism of this approach has already been voiced.

Our current system of compartmentalizing decision making tends to produce decisions that do not take into account any sort of "big picture" analysis. FDA authority for its decision is based solely on whether irradiation is a safe "food additive" with respect to a specific food product. This does not take into account any environmental, economic, systemic or even long term food policy factors or ramifications.

Because of both FDA's inherent structure and its lack of funding, FDA conclusions on many food safety issues are based on industry testing. Even testing done at some of our best land grant institutions is closely allied with or paid for by large food industries. How does this affect the direction of our food policy and shape our food system?

But perhaps the most basic problem with the irradiation approach is one that instinctively we can easily see - irradiation treats the symptoms of contamination, not the underlying causes. How have we created a food system that requires irradiation in order to eat salad?

I am reminded of a great quote from Carol Tucker Foreman of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America in the documentary, Modern Meat. With regard to the irradiation of meat, Foreman stated, "I'm not opposed to irradiating ground beef. If I were supplying a nursing home, I'd probably make sure that the meat came in irradiated. My concern is that I don't want a system that says you can have fecal matter all over it and then irradiate it. Irradiated poop won't make you sick, but it's still poop."

The FDA's announcement appeared on Friday, August 22, 2008 in the Federal Register at 73 Fed. Reg, 49,593 (Aug. 22, 2008). There will be a 30-day period for submitting objections or a request for a hearing. Electronic objections may be submitted to the Federal eRulemaking Portal or written submissions may be sent to the Dockets Management Branch (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. Reference "Docket No. FDA-1999-F-2405] (formerly 1999F-5522)."

An even more controversial issue may arise with respect to how (and if) irradiated vegetables will be labeled and what can and cannot be said in the labeling.

Note: Thanks is expressed to Alli Condra, first year law student at Drake University School of Law and food law enthusiast for her email question to me last night on this issue. But, for her question and my rant in response, I would probably have spent this morning preparing for the start of my law classes rather than posting this blog! A good distraction indeed - great to know that law students are interested in these types of issues.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This post is an excellent example of why we should trust our powers of reason, rather than instincts.

Cloning is fundamentally no different from the natural process of twinning, and is completely unrelated to diet or disease.

Governments rely on industry evaluations of pharmaceuticals, automobiles, you name it. Would it be better for industry to 'pass the buck' to the government? That way, when you're injured by a product, you can sue the government and see what you get.

Saying that irradiation doesn't cure the problem of food contamination is as good as saying seat belts don't prevent car crashes. But if you're really worried about this issue, start at the beginning--outlaw organic farming. Throwing cow poop on lettuce fields is a bad idea from the start.

As for labeling, it would be far more meaningful to mandate a label, "Caution: Not irradiated. May contains E.coli, Salmonella, Campylobacter, Shigella, or other organisms which may cause illness, permanent disability, or death". it will be reasonable to put a label on the safer stuff.

8/22/2008 4:24 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As with the previous article, I propose the same solution - fewer people. Irradiation requirements come from the need to produce more food with less cost, less land, less water, and less personal care. So long as we let people reproduce willy-nilly, we'll need more draconian food production methods - more chemicals, more medications, more irradiation, while millions of acres are lost forever to unnecessary strip malls and casinos. "We have met the enemy, and it is us!"

8/23/2008 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


If the "solution is fewer people", I'd like to know what laws we might pass to help ensure this comes about.

Legal mandates aimed at reducing population have a rather checkered history. While these mandates are often well-received by contemporaries, they're generally condemned unequivocally in hindsight.

Meanwhile, there is no historical or scientific justification for believing that population reduction contributes to the general welfare.

When human populations were the lowest, malnutrition and disease were rampant. Life expectancy was low, and infant mortality was high. Increases in human welfare have accompanied increases in total population.

Interestingly, increased wealth, best defined as broad access to modern technology, has proved to be the most effective way to reduce population. It turns out that humans respond to improvements in general welfare by reducing their reproductive rate.

Which strongly suggests that irradiation, by reducing morbidity and mortality, actually contributes to a reduction in population. (As if population is a problem, and all attempts to prove population is a problem have failed badly.)

All of which means that complaining about producing "more food with less cost, less land, less water, and less personal care" is ill-founded, from legal, historical, sociological and ecological perspectives.

P.S. Anyone who complains about excess human population, or calls humans 'enemies' simply because these humans live and breathe, is likely not the finest example of civilization.

8/23/2008 5:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is such a bad idea. I also wrote about cloning cows, etc., on blogher and on my blog in a piece titled, "Don't Have a Cow," some months back.
Like everything else, science can be used for good and for ill. Jacking around with our food - is for ill. The scientific approach to food is partially why our food supply is in such a mess!

8/26/2008 4:04 PM  

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