Bureaucracy or Irradiation: Which Should You Trust More?


My heart goes out to Stephanie Smith, a young woman who became paralyzed after eating a hamburger contaminated with the virulent strain of E. coli known as O157:H7. Her sad story was featured on the front page of the Sunday New York Times and is supposed to illustrate the need for more government food safety regulation. I read the story waiting for the reporter to write about another low-cost solution to the problem of bacterial contamination in food. It never came. What solution? Irradiation. That is, treating foods with gamma, electron beam or X-ray radiation to kill bacteria that might be found on food before it is offered to the consumer. It is no more dangerous than pasteurization of milk and would prevent tens of thousands of food poisoning episodes if widely adopted. As the U.S. Centers for Disease Control summarizes the results of decades of research:

Treating raw meat and poultry with irradiation at the slaughter plant could eliminate bacteria commonly found raw meat and raw poultry, such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Campylobacter. These organisms currently cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations in the United States every year. Raw meat irradiation could also eliminate Toxoplasma organisms, which can be responsible for severe eye and congenital infections. Irradiating prepared ready-to-eat meats like hot dogs and deli meats, could eliminate the risk of Listeria from such foods. Irradiation could also eliminate bacteria like Shigella and Salmonella from fresh produce. The potential benefit is also great for those dry foods that might be stored for long times and transported over great distances, such as spices and grains. Animal feeds are often contaminated with bacteria like Salmonella. Irradiation of animal feeds could prevent the spread of Salmonella and other pathogens to livestock through feeds.

The Times offered nary a word on the topic, but instead argued for expanding federal food safety regulatory authority. Even more irritatingly, at the end of the article, the Times quoted a representative from the "consumer" group, Food and Water Watch, who favored more vigorous regulatory enforcement. I would argue that Food and Water Watch is partly responsible for putting the health of consumers like Ms. Smith at risk because of its ongoing unscientific campaign against food irradiation. Why should Americans be forced to trust their health chiefly to the good will of politically well-connected corporations and a bunch of bureaucrats when applying a simple elegant inexpensive technnology can go a long way toward solving the problem?