Monday, September 8, 2008

Food Irradiation

There is always two sides to every story. That is what I've been telling myself as I have been reading articles about the latest piece of news that I have unearthed. Now this may be old-news to some people, but for me, it was one more blow to my already skeptical view of this nation's food suppliers. Did you know that the FDA just ruled to allow spinach and iceberg lettuce to be treated with irradiation? This new treatment of some of our leafy greens is to prevent e. coli. My initial instinct is to be incredibly worried about this new legislation, and I think I remain in a state of alarm about the whole thing. However, I looked up some other articles about the issue, following a stream of links leading from one question to another, and I came up with some interesting discoveries.

The first side of this story comes from the standpoint that food irradiation is bad. Chemicals called furans, which are often toxic and may be carcinogenic, are found in food that has been irradiated. Another chemical family called the 2-alkylcyclobutanones are not found naturally in foods, but are found in food that has been irradiated. This is alarming if 2-alkylcyclobutanones are not found in our food naturally, and therefore not part of our digestion processes and immune defense mechanisms, then the side effects of exposure are relatively unknown. I can't help thinking about Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the impacts that the world is slowly recovering, but still suffering, from DDT. There are also labeling issues about food that has been irradiated. For instance, spinach and iceberg lettuce that is unpackaged and fresh in the produce section must say "Treated with Irradiation" or be marked with the Radura symbol:
On the other hand, some say food irradiation is okay, as it provides a necessary service that is the only way in the production process to ensure a "pathogen-free" product. Strains of E. coli and Salmonella can usually be washed clean off of the surfaces of fruits and veggies. So unless you never wash the produce you are eating, you usually should be okay. That isn't where the problem lies, however. Food irradiation is being used to get rid of "internalized bacteria," or bacteria that can't be washed off. The irradiation breaks up water molecules housed in the plant's cells, releasing free-radicals that damage cell walls and any nearby bacteria DNA. Other defenses of food irradiation include the points that furans naturally occur when food is cooked and studies of 2-alkylcylcobutanones are found in very low levels and have produced different results. Some studies have found that 2-alkylcylcobutanones damage DNA, while others have found they do nothing of the sort.

In all of the information that I read about this issue, not one shred of evidence, either for or agains food irradiation, was done by independent analysts. One thing that all articles were in agreement on, however, was the knowledge that irraditing food destroys vitamins and minerals in the vegetables we eat, especially Vitamin C, Vitamin A, Thiamine, and Folate. Though irriadiating our food could significantly cut down on internalized bacteria, there is no way that 100% of E. coli and Salmonella strains would be destroyed. An important point to also realize is that while it takes thousands and thousand of E. coli bacterium to make a person sick, it only takes a handful for a person to become ill from Salmonella. Is this treatment really even effective? What are we sacrificing?

The largest problem of all that concerns me the most is the fact that none of the arguments presented thus far are addressing the main issue. What is the main issue? E. coli and Salmonella strains are bacteriums that are classically defined by their presence in raw meats. What on earth are they doing showing up in the flesh of our fruits and veggies? The agricultural industry, FDA, and food porduction agencies should not be looking for substututes for CLEAN FARMING PRACTICES. If bacteriums are causing health crises in industries where shouldn't even be present, then the logical answer would be to take a serious look at the food industry and clean up our farming, processing, packaging, and handling practices.

So how do we even go about changing this? Especially as citizens? What are your thoughts on this matter?

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