The United States is being hit by two large foodborne illness outbreaks — first, the E. coli outbreak in romaine lettuce, and now a salmonella outbreak in beef that has sickened more than 200 people. These high-profile cases underscore the inadequacy of the safety measures meant to protect our food supply. If we are serious about addressing this issue, we must implement food irradiation.
Every year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 48 million cases of foodborne illness occur, hospitalizing 128,000 and killing 3,000, usually older or immunocompromised people. Those of you who have ever had the“24-hour flu” or “stomach flu” should be aware that those aren’t real diseases; instead, you probably had food poisoning.
The trouble with food poisoning is that it is caused by at least 31 microbes, usually various kinds of bacteria or viruses. Worse, our food can be contaminated at several different stages, making epidemiological investigations tricky. Unsanitary conditions at a farm or packing center can cause widespread outbreaks, but so too can a careless restaurant chef who doesn’t wash his hands. Thus, we will never eliminate food poisoning, but we can reduce the number of cases that occur.
Irradiation is misunderstood like vaccines, GMOs
Perhaps one of the best ways is food irradiation. As its name suggests, irradiation involves zapping food with high-energy electromagnetic waves, such as X-rays or gamma rays. Scientists have studied it for decades and have shown conclusively that it is entirely safe.
The Food and Drug Administration has already approved irradiation for several different foods, such as meat and produce.
Why isn’t irradiated food more widely available? As we’ve already experienced with vaccines and genetically modified organisms, the public doesn’t really understand it. And people tend to shy away from things they don’t understand.
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A paper published in the journal Radiation Physics and Chemistry described several such barriers to the widespread adoption of food irradiation. Many consumers are under the wrong impression that irradiation makes food radioactive. But that’s not true, in the same way that getting an X-ray doesn’t make you radioactive.
Other consumers fear that irradiation will decrease the nutritional quality of food. It is true that irradiation can damage some vitamins, but the overall effect is minimal, perhaps the same as that of cooking food.
It’s more expensive to get sick then to irradiate
Still others are concerned that irradiation might increase the cost of food. It certainly could a little, but this must be compared with the cost of doing nothing, which is to continue allowing 48 million cases of food poisoning to occur every year in this country, at an estimated cost of $78 billion. It’s time to try something else.
To be sure, food irradiation is not a cure-all. For example, it might not work well against viruses, and the No. 1 cause of food poisoning is norovirus, the bug that we often associate with sickened passengers on cruise ships. It also can’t protect you from unhygienic food service workers. But irradiation does work very well against bacteria, such as E. coli and salmonella, which are causing national headaches right now.
Even if food irradiation reaped modest benefits, say a 10 percent decrease in food poisonings, we would save hundreds of lives and billions of dollars in health care costs each year. For those reasons, as epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has argued, irradiation should join pasteurization, chlorination and vaccination as one of the pillars of our public health system.
Alex Berezow, a Ph.D. microbiologist and senior fellow of biomedical science at the American Council on Science and Health, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @AlexBerezow
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