Imagine, somewhere between night and dawn, a family is about
to embark on a big cookout.  The menu:  A heap of homemade potato
salad for starters, followed by some juicy barbecued chicken, and
capped-off with an old favorite — Aunt Mabel’s fresh strawberry
Jello mold.  Nothing unusual about this summer shindig, right?
Well, not if you consider that the fixin’s will be made from
potatoes that have sat in a corner of the pantry since
Thanksgiving, from chicken guaranteed to be salmonella-free, and
from strawberries that have graced the bottom shelf of the
refrigerator for over a month.  No, this is not a picnic hosted by
Rod Serling in The Twilight Zone.  It is a picture of what will be
happening in countless backyards across America when food
irradiation technology is allowed to reach its wondrous potential.

     Since the time Adam and Eve got booted out of the garden, we
have used several forms of energy to process our food.  Drying meat
and fish in the sun was primitive man’s way of using
electromagnetic radiation to preserve food and kill food-borne
organisms.  Recently, we began to enjoy the convenience of electric
or gas-produced infrared radiation in our stoves and the higher
energy processing of our microwave ovens.

     While we certainly have progressed, we still face difficult
food processing challenges.  Foremost, there are many worldwide who
go hungry due to food spoilage.  And in this country, thousands die
each year from ingesting food contaminated with disease-causing
bacteria and parasites.  The use of ionizing energy, also known as
food irradiation, can help us overcome these challenges.

     In the heart of New Delhi, India, in a section of town known
as Jangpura, Ajay returns to his four-room dwelling after a long
day at the construction site.  His wife Sunita greets him as she
finishes preparing the meal for her extended family which includes
their two children as well as Ajay’s parents.  Rice will be the
main staple of their dinner tonight since this is July and the
trucks could not keep enough fish fresh on the long trip from the
Arabian Sea.  What fish was available was too expensive for the
Khanna family to afford.  Some apples and cherries from the Kashmir
did make it down to the Bhogal Market, but these were only of
second quality.  Thus the Khanna’s, as is often the case in
Jangpura, will go to bed tonight with their stomachs still calling
for more.

     Despite freezing and the use of post-harvest chemicals, much
of the world’s food supply never makes it to market.  In fact,
according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the
United Nations, between one-quarter and one-third of all the food
grown in the world is destroyed by spoilage and insect infestation.
In some countries, particularly in tropical regions, the figure is
closer to 50% or more.  Experts estimate that up to 500 different
forms of insects can infest such foods as grain, fruit, nuts,
spices, dried fish, and vegetables while other foods like potatoes
and onions begin to sprout soon after they are picked.  This has a
devastating impact on the Third World where the challenge is not
necessarily to grow enough food but rather to deliver it to hungry
mouths before it rots.

     On a sloping hillside at the Teays Cemetery just outside
Charleston, West Virginia, the voice of a minister solemnly
reciting the 23rd Psalm can be heard echoing through the steady
drizzle.  “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”  In the
center of the small gathering rests Zachary Coleman, a boy who
never saw his fourth birthday.  Already plagued by chronic
bronchitis, his young body just could not fight off the salmonella
microorganisms he ingested with his chicken dinner.  Tragically,
his mother had failed to properly clean the utensils she had used
to prepare the poultry.  Zachary is just one of the thousands of
Americans who fall victim each year to deadly food-borne organisms.

     While the severe effects of food spoilage are largely confined
to developing countries, the illness and death resulting from food
poisoning know no boundaries.  Indeed, a 1983 joint commission of
the FAO and World Health Organization (WHO) concluded that
“illnesses due to contaminated food is perhaps the most widespread
health problem in the contemporary world.” 

     In the U.S. alone, 40% of the chicken sold to consumers is
said to be contaminated by salmonella which infects an estimated
two million Americans annually.  In addition, estimates of human
infection from campylobacter are over two million cases per year
while trichinosis and toxoplasmosis, parasitic diseases that result
from infested meat, also strike many Americans.  All told, some
five to ten thousand Americans die each and every year from food-
borne illness.

     By controlling the organisms that cause spoilage and disease,
food irradiation is one of man’s best weapons in the battle to
provide the world with a safe and abundant food supply.  The
benefits of this technology are derived from its ability to use
high-energy electromagnetic waves to break the chemical bonds of
molecules essential to an organism’s life and reproduction.
Depending on the dose, the process can kill the insects and larvae
found after harvest in grains and produce, can slow the ripening
process of fruits and vegetables, can dramatically extend the
refrigerated shelf life of fresh fish and meat, and can reduce or
eliminate pathogens like salmonella in fresh or frozen poultry and
shrimp. This is achieved by using a conveyor to bring food products
past a gamma ray source, usually cobalt-60, that emits a controlled
and carefully timed level of energy. 

     Food irradiation does not make food radioactive, does not
produce chemical residues, and any loss in the nutritional value of
irradiated foods is comparable to those foods packaged by the
conventional methods of canning or freezing.

     Concerning the safety of the process, food irradiation has
been studied for more than 40 years and has obtained the blessing
of the world’s scientific community.  The FAO, WHO, International
Atomic Energy Agency, and the American Medical Association have all
concluded that irradiated foods are safe.  In addition, the U.S.
Food and Drug Administration and Department of Agriculture have
approved the use of food irradiation for many products.  And just
recently, the rules for irradiating chicken were published in the
Federal Register making it likely that consumers will soon enjoy
the choice of buying safer poultry.  The successful opening of the
nation’s first commercial irradiation facility in Mulberry, Florida
makes this even more imminent.

     With thousands dying from contaminated food and countless
others perishing from hunger, the need for a safer, more abundant
food supply has never been greater.  And a burgeoning world
population only adds to this challenge.  Clearly, a safe technology
capable of cleaning-up the international food supply and extending
the global harvest should be warmly embraced the world over.
Indeed this is happening as more than 20 countries are now
irradiating one or more foods on a commercial scale.  It is only a
matter of time before irradiated foods become as commonplace in the
American home as Aunt Mabel’s strawberry Jello mold.

August, 2002