“After the E. coli outbreak in Europe last month — which sickened more than 3000 people and killed at least 50 — it was impossible not to think about irradiation. “What if,” I asked myself, “those little fenugreek seeds had been irradiated?” Might there have been fewer deaths, fewer cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (essentially, kidney failure; there were 900), fewer tragic stories?
The answer is “yes.” But it’s not the only question.
When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.
Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”
There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”…”