Radioactive Reasoning


In an essay for the the American Council on Science and Health, Rutgers University food scientist Joseph D. Rosen, who "likes his meat rare and his science well done," ably dissects a recent Consumer Reports article that attacks irradiated meat for no good reason. As I noted in my article on the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Reason's July issue, this weird resistance to a process that indisputably makes food safer is hard to understand except as the expression of a desire to punish people for eating animal products.

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  1. Have you considered that people think “irradiated” then think “radiation” then think “cancer”?

    Because that was the root basis of my mother’s horror at the idea, and she’s a well educated woman. It took my family at least a solid week to explain to her that irradiating something doesn’t necessarily make it radioactive…

  2. Consumer Reports isn’t a vegan magazine. They rate grills. I think this is more of a nuke scare.

  3. I dropped my subscription to Consumer Reports in 1994 after they began beating the drums for universal health care. Quick quiz: Who else was beating the drums for universal health care in 1994? The connection was obvious to me then.

    I’ll start subscribing to CR again when they take up the cause of school vouchers and begin rating private and public secondary schools as “best buy” and “unacceptable”.

  4. This is a straight-ahead fear of science and the future scare. Wasn’t it James Thurber’s grandmother who was running around the house taping up all the electrical sockets so that electricity wouldn’t leak out of them?

  5. I had to laugh at the last issue ? they were complaining about being sued by a car manufacturer, all the paper and resources they had to spend to defend themselves. You can debate the free speech issue ? but business and individuals are being sued every day for frivolous reasons and have to spend just as much resources as they did defending themselves.

    Consumer report is very much in bed with attorney who file frivolous law suits ? its good from them to have some of there own medicine.

  6. Tom,

    NO, it’s not good for anybody to be the target of SLAPP lawsuits, cynically and deliberately designed to deter free speech. If it’s not GOOD when it happens to somebody who sells hot coffee with a warning label that coffee is hot, then it’s not good when it happens to somebody YOU don’t like.

    As for Consumer Reports’ recommendations, I don’t think the issue of radiolytic byproducts in irradiated meat is by any means settled. Considering who funds the bulk of research, I would say the weighing of one risk against another is a legitimate private decision.

    I’m especially skeptical of claims that mainstream corporate agricultural produce is “just as good” as organic, because I know something about their respective practices. Most corporate chemical “farmers” typically use a basic N-P-K fertilizer, while putting inadequate amounts of organic matter back in the soil. As a result, the soil is stripped of trace elements not included in most chemical fertilizer. Most grocery store produce is deficient in zinc and other trace minerals. And the failure to restore organic matter to the soil means that it becomes less friable, eventually turning into sterile, hardpan clay. The soil is a miniature ecosystem, with all kinds of bacteria (mycorrhizae and legume innoculants, for instance) living in symbiotic relationships with root hairs. The compaction of the soil, and the alteration of its ph and osmotic qualities by the accumulated filler from commercial fertilizer, disrupts this ecosystem.

  7. Just need some marketer to come up with a new cute name for “irradiation” like they did when they turned rapeseed oil into canola oil. I really think it’s that simple.

  8. Don’t we irradiate our food everytime we use the microwave oven?

  9. I just looked at Kevin’s web site…if he doesn’t trust the research on irradiated foods because of the source…his own motives are equally open to question. Clearly his ‘mutualism’ is fundementally in opposition to large corporations…hence it is easy enough to dismiss his objections with an ad hominem sweep of my hand…

    Having said that, I don’t believe it should be done. I find the research on irradiated foods quite compelling (since Kevin doesn’t, please let him SPECIFICALLY fault it, not simply critique those who paid the bills….), though certainly reasonable people might differ.

    On the subject of SLAPPs…I must agree with Kevin, though I am of mixed feelings. So-called activists who simply throw sand in the gears because they cannot win an argument fairly deserve little sympathy, but in the end, if it is wrong for the Rifkins of the world to use the tactic, it is wrong for Monsanto too…

  10. B.P.: That is an EXCELLENT point. I wish I had thought of it!

  11. That is an excellant point about Kosher foods; I hadn’t though of it either!

    A few quick snippits:

    1) Being skeptical of information because of it’s source is difference than arguing that the information is not true because of the source; frame it any way you like, when it is obviously in someone’s self-interests to lie to you, trust is probably not the wisest course of action.

    It’s an exceedingly good strategy in The Game; “Trust Is A Weakness”, sayeth the security field.

    If you disagree, then might I reccommend you think long-term in your investment strategies and just ride out the volatility in the markets – the market goes down, and it will come back up again. *snicker*

    (Pay no attention to how that is only meaningful if you in Index Funds or actively trading, given that not all stocks go back up again when they go down, even if the market itself does. Pay No Attention To The Man Behind The Curtain!)

    A problem arises, however, when this is simply used as a good old fashioned Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt, and Delay campaign; the proper solution to this reservation is dealing with the evidence itself, which may require more study.

    Thus the power of the free market – if you don’t like irradiated stuff, you don’t have to buy it. It requires that customers actually inform themselves (shock!), but there you go – everyone can have their way, to a far larger extent than they otherwise could, as both the Early Adopters and Futurists could have their stuff as soon as it rolls off the presses, while others could take a proactive “Wait And See” approach.

  12. Mark A.,

    I meant that the soil was being stripped of organic matter and becoming NOTHING BUT compact, hardpan clay.


    I’ve got no quarrel with that, but the agribusiness industry most definitely does NOT want non-GMO labelling to be permitted, even on a voluntary basis.

  13. When it comes to GM or irradiated food, I am *ALL FOR* any country or locality or group of consumers that wants to impose a labelling requirement. Frankly, food producers, if the science is so good, then stand behind it, sell the new products for cheaper, and everyone can get on with their lives. If you can’t label the products separately and also sell them for cheaper, then accept that they weren’t economically viable.

  14. Now when I see GM, I don’t think genetically modified, I think crummy cars. I agree this is merely a labeling issue. Maybe we should call it Genetically Improved? I think Genetic Oversight Development would deliver a good acrynym. “This food prepared by…”

  15. Enough with the labelling! If you’re the worrywort, you should be the one seeking out food labelled non-GMO (which exist), not forcing those who don’t give a damn to bear the transaction costs of labelling all foods. Orthodox Jews don’t seek to have the majority of foods labelled non-kosher in order to make their food choices; they do the opposite.

  16. Joe — I think the ‘nuke scare’ aspect is certainly a major factor.

    Anon@7:35 — That is EXACTLY what happened when “Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR)” imaging mysteriously vanished at the ‘advent’ of “Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)” in the late Eighties (hhmmmmmm…I wonder if that’s why you don’t hear the phrase ‘nuclear family’ as much anymore). 🙂

    Kevin — I don’t know much about agri-business farming practices but, all things being equal, I think I should prefer disease resistant GM foods that come to my grocer at a significantly lower cost due to the sizeable labor savings compared to organic foods.

    Also, cooking produces significant thermolytic byproducts. Irradiation kills bacteria more efficiently in the sense that it directly interacts with the electrons of the bacteria’s molecules, breaking them apart and disrupting cellular processes necessary for cells to continue living. Heat is not as efficient in the sense that it acts across different energy modes — the constituent molecules are not simply broken apart. They are rotated, translated and generally kicked around and shaken pretty thoroughly before energy absorption begins to occur in the electron modes. Anyway, I would want to see a complete comparison of the byproducts of each before I castigate irradiation.

    Also, I don’t understand the remark about becoming clay — clays are silicate minerals, as I recall, and the presence of organics is irrelevant. Or did I misunderstand you?

    Hank — In a sense, yes. However, whereas food irradiation typically utilizes the 662 kilo-electronvolt gamma rays emitted by cesium-137 (caesium, for those of you across-the-pond), a fission product produced in nuclear reactors. A microwave oven uses, well, microwaves, which are also electromagnetic radiation like gammas, but 100’s of thousands of times less energetic per photon. The microwave oven, however, bathes your food with A LOT of these photons. The microwave energy is selected to interact most efficiently with the water molecules in your food to make them do what I described above when I wrote about cooking.

  17. Kevin Carson

    Is there any law preventing one from claiming one’s products have GMOs? After all, that is an objective claim, they either do or they don’t. Unlike “organic” which means pretty much nothing (after all exactly which foods are not organic?), but has now been defined for us by the USDA.

  18. Sorry

    should read “no GMOs”

  19. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 08:56:56
    In this grand B movie we call life, there is always a girl.

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