August 25, 2008

Poop-Tainted Spinach? Just Nuke It

Now, I don’t know as much about irradiating food as I’d like. Which is to say that I know next to nothing. But nevertheless, the increasingly strident skeptic in me is just howling over this

After two years of nearly constant food-borne illness outbreaks and recalls of everything from tainted peanut butter to tons of hamburger meat, the Food and Drug Administration's decision last week to allow the irradiation of lettuce and spinach to kill dangerous bacteria didn't surprise anyone in the food industry. …

Zapping spinach and iceberg lettuce with a tiny shot of radiation is an effective way to prevent deadly outbreaks of E. coli, according to the FDA, which says it's safe. But not everyone agrees.

The disagreements are fairly obvious. First, nuking food just doesn’t seem safe, and some quick Googling indicates that there really isn’t a good body of research on whether it is safe.

Second, as the article points out, it’s a way to put a technological band-aid on what is really a food production and processing problem. So huge fields of leafy greens are way too close to factory farms overloaded with cows that produce mountains of pooh (and lots of flatulence, but that’s a global warming story) that gets washed into nearby streams or down hills into Popeye’s favorite canned food.

Generally, I’m not opposed to technology that can improve our lives. But in this case, this criticism makes a lot of sense…

"Food irradiation is a pseudo-fix," said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety in Washington. "It's a way to try to come in and clean up problems that are created in the middle of the food production chain. I think it's clearly a disincentive to clean up the problems at the source." (emphasis mine)

It’s easy, of course, to fault one person or political party in the continuing degradation of our food production system. But that’s really taking the easy way out.

But Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association said the Bush administration isn't doing anything other administrations haven't tried.

"This is definitely bipartisan," Cummins said. "Every administration since FDR has been pro-agribusiness, and there hasn't been much difference in their policies."
Thankfully, food that has been irradiated has to be marked as such, and something tells me a big sticker that screams "IRRADIATED" isn't going to attract a lot consumers.

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