The Unknowns of Food Irradiation

One year has passed since the nation's first food irradiation plant opened in Mulberry, Florida. With approval in hand from the Food and Drug Administration to irradiate fruits and vegetables, Vindicator Inc. sent strawberries out onto the market amidst much media debate.

Five months later, despite the hue and cry regarding nutritional effects, worker exposure, and unknown chemical reactions, the FDA also approved poultry for irradiation. But corporations such as Kraft, Conagra, Kellogg, and Kentucky Fried Chicken have paid closer attention than the FDA to consumer concern, refusing so far to irradiate their products. "We want to do it, but we want to be second," said one poultry processor. Maine, New York, and New Jersey (as well as Australia, New Zealand, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Germany) have put a moratorium on or have banned outright the sale of irradiated food.

The issue is tricky. Anyone who has done time in the bathroom with food poisoning will find a certain amount of appeal in the concept--exposing food to gamma rays from cobalt 60 or cesium 137, thus destroying salmonella and other bacteria. (Unfortunately, the technique does not destroy the bacteria that causes botulism.) The process does not make food radioactive.

Food irradiation is not new. Since the 1960s, the United States has used it to control insects in wheat, flour, and spices and to prevent sprouting in potatoes. Proponents point out that in some cases irradiation replaces dangerous chemicals currently used to control insects and bacteria. That is a plus.

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Sojourners Magazine January 1993
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