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Pundit Mailbag — Irradiation Safety
Clearly Demonstrated

We’ve run many pieces on irradiation, including one specifically on tomatoes, entitled Irradiation Holds Promise For Tomato Pathogen Reduction, which featured an interview with Dr. Anuradha Prakash at Chapman University. It was, however a mention in our interview with Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH that brought this note:

I was pleased to read the frank and honest opinion of my colleague, Dr. Michael Osterholm, about the OPTION on irradiation to ensure microbiological safety of fresh produce, as posted in your website on 24 June 2008. I have spent more than 3 decades of my professional life to develop irradiation technology from its infancy to the point that its safety and effectiveness as a sanitary and phytosanitary treatment for food have been clearly demonstrated.

You may be interested in seeing a booklet on “Irradiated Foods,” published by the American Council of Science and Health, as well as my recent article (written before the outbreak of Salmonella in tomatoes) just posted on ACSH website:

Unfortunately, the produce industry (and to a large extent the meat industry) has shunned the use of irradiation to ensure the safety of their products. In case of fresh produce, it may have an excuse as the FDA has approved irradiation ONLY for insect disinfestation and delaying physiological growth in 1986. As mentioned in my recent article, the FDA has kept the petition for irradiation (as a sanitary treatment) for ready-to-eat food including fresh produce pending for about 9 years. To me, the FDA should be held accountable for its delay in approving irradiation as a sanitary treatment for fresh produce, as the technology could have been used to prevent many illnesses and deaths from consumption of produce in the past 8 years.

It is clear that research data have demonstrated that pathogens such as Salmonella and E. coli (0157:H7) can grow inside fresh produce such as lettuce and tomatoes, making external washing essentially useless. It is beyond my comprehension why the produce industry has not demanded and the FDA has not approved the use of irradiation to protect consumer health as it is the only effective technology to “pasteurize” fresh produce.

— Paisan Loaharanu
Adjunct Prof. of Food Safety
Michigan State Univ.
E. Lansing, Michigan
Former Head, Food and Environmental Protection
Joint FAO/IAEA Division
Vienna, Austria

The FDA should be ashamed of itself for failing to approve the produce irradiation petition for nine years. We’ve asked and have been told bluntly that the hold-up is political. That FDA sees little upside in approval — just some scientists and policy wonks. And FDA sees the downside as substantial as it will be ruthlessly attacked by various non-governmental organizations.

Although FDA’s behavior is inexcusable, we can’t say it has made much of a difference. In hamburger, where irradiation is approved, the sales of irradiated meat are tiny. Yes, Wegmans, as we have mentioned here, here and here, does sell the meat and apparently has decent business — still it is a small percentage of total sales.

Hamburger is much riskier than produce, so it is hard to see it taking off in produce if it is slow to take off on hamburger.

It does strike us that the industry as a whole would benefit from the offering of an irradiated option in supermarkets. First we suspect there is a market — as large or larger than that for organics — that might value the product and not only buy it but pay a premium for it. We also think the offering of an irradiated option for produce makes it very clear that consumers are electing to take on certain risks when they buy the non-irradiated field grown produce. These risks are tiny, and unless one has an immature or impaired immune system, it is mostly a risk of developing a bad stomachache.

There is some irony, though, in the FDA, with the left hand demanding zero tolerance on pathogens and with the right hand prohibiting the use of irradiation to get to that point.

We thank Paisan Loaharanu for his intriguing letter.

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