Earlier this year, tainted hamburger sold by the Jack-in-the-Box chain in Washington state caused the death of one two year old boy and the illness of an estimated 300 customers. While that crisis attracted considerable attention, the fact that the technology exists to prevent contamination by e.-coli bacteria—the kind responsible for this particular outbreak of food poisoning—and many other forms of food poisoning went almost unreported.
The fact is that food irradiation, which most scientists believe would destroy food-borne illnesses with no harmful side effects, has been approved by the Food & Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, and regulatory bodies in more than 100 countries for years. In May of 1990 the FDA issued a statement defining the use of irradiation as a safe and effective means to control salmonella and other food-borne bacteria a poultry products. In 1992, guidelines for the use of irradiation were finalized.
Since some experts believe that as much as 60% of poultry sold in the United States may be contaminated, the FDA's ruling might have been expected to have far-reaching consequences. It has not, because consumers activist groups have been vocal in their opposition and no food processor or commodity group in this country has had the courage to mount a proactive pro-irradiation education campaign, despite the fact that they know it could avert tragedies such as the one in Washington.
"First of all, if you wanted to come up with a word that would scare consumers away, you couldn't do any better than irradiation," says Nancy Glick, head of the nutrition practice at Hill & Knowlton in Washington, D.C. "If we were to strategize on how to introduce this issue to the public, we probably would not come up with the name irradiation and have its chief proponent be a company called Vindicator."
Glick says that many commodity groups would like to use irradiation—in addition to making the food supply safer, it can also reduce spoilage and increase shelf life—but that none want to be the first to embrace the new technology in public. Many companies, food producers, and supermarkets have been threatened with boycotts if they get involved with irradiation. And consumer activist groups have been successful in their attempts to gener ate media skepticism on the issue.
"A frightening number of companies are spineless when it comes to facing down a vocal group of opponents," says Barbara Keating-Edh, executive director of the pro-irradiation food safety group Consumer Alert. "People are being denied a safer choice, and I find that outrageous."
While the FDA's acceptance of irradiation was welcomed by poultry producers—"the industry should be able to use any science available that makes food safe from food-borne illnesses and also is safe," says National Turkey Federation evp Stuart Proctor—it has also said it will not begin irradiation until consumers "are ready to accept the product." Unfortunately, like most other commodity groups, the National Turkey Federation has done little to pave the way for such acceptance. Neither has the National Broiler Council, which says "the U.S. poultry industry has always been a consumer-driven business" and that when consumers desire irradiated chickens "the industry will respond."
This wait-and-see attitude has been industry's response to irradiation for three decades. In fact, research into irradiation as a means of preventing illness from food borne bacteria began shortly after World War II. Since 1963, the FDA has passed a succession of rules permitting irradiation to curb insects in foods and microorganisms in spices, to control parasite contamination of meat products and reduce spoilage in foods and vegetables.
During this time the public agenda has been almost entirely set by activist groups opposed to the practice. Opposition has come from groups such as Food and Water Inc., a small but unusually strident group that claims irradiation will lead to "the continued generation of radioactive wastes for which a secure isolation technology has yet to be developed," and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which takes the more moderate position that at a minimum, irradiated foods should be labeled.
Irradiation does not make food radioactive, and thus does not result in any human exposure to radiation, says FDA expert Laura Tarantino, who adds that even using levels considerably higher than those approved for use on poultry, researchers found no toxic or cancer causing effects in animals consuming irradiated food.
"Something quite aside from food safety appears to lie at the root of the entire controversy," observed the August 1989 issue of Food Technology magazine. "Many opponents charge that the Food & Drug Administration, the World Health Organization and the nuclear power industry are conspiring to promote the technique as a way to dispose of nuclear waste." While such charges do not make much scientific sense, they have been successful in persuading many legislators to oppose irradiation.
A more serious question is whether irradiation results in the formation of toxic chemicals or other "radiolytic" products, which some say may be created when the bombardment of food by gamma rays breaks up the molecules. Researchers say that while some toxic chemicals are formed, but in amounts that are too small to be significant.
It is these concerns that have led three states—New York, New Jersey and Maine—to ban or issue a moratorium on the sale of irradiated food, and prompted less radical groups like the powerful American Association of Retired Persons to urge the government to delay approval of irradiation until more research can be carried out.
Even labeling has created controversy.. Since 1966, the FDA has required that irradiated food be labeled as such, with a logo depicting an energy source above two petals. Industry groups have opposed any labeling, claiming it is used to scare the public, while irradiation opponents say the symbol—known as a radura—is too friendly.
"It's an obvious attempt to mislead consumers," says Michael Colby of Food and Water. "If they were looking to be truthful, they should have something more obviously associated with radiation, like the three triangles arranged in a circle."
"It's quite understandable that companies don't want to put labels on these products," says Marc Sheineson, evp at Ketchum Public Relations in Washington, D.C. "Irradiation still has some scary connotations, and there has not yet been any evidence that consumers demand or accept irradiated food. Activist groups have clearly used the label as a means to scare people away from irradiated products."
However, there is research to show that if the public does understand irradiation, it will buy irradiated food. Christine Bruhn, of the University of California's Center for Consumer Research, says that irradiated papayas outsold the non-irradiated product by ten to one when in store information was available in a test market.
Such research has apparently not convinced corporate America.
Companies such as Quaker Oats—which was targeted by activists after using irradiated mushroom bits in products during the `70s—and H J. Heinz have pledged not to sell irradiated foods, while ConAgra says it has not moved to irradiation for financial reasons and Geo. A. Hormel & Co. says: "We think it has applications, but we're not going to fight consumers."
The only exception is Vindicator, the Florida company that recently opened a commercial irradiation plant in Mulberry, Fla. President Sam Whitney has been enthusiastic in his advocacy of irradiation. "This is going to be a real bonanza for growers and consumers alike," he says. "All the surveys show that people want safer food and this is a simple proven process that kills the bacteria that can kill you."
Protesters picketed the plant when the first irradiated berries emerged in January, and Food and Water ran ads warning consumers that eating irradiated food "might kill you" but the fruit sold well, and Whitney says he has been fielding a large number of calls from food producers interested in employing the process. He also acknowledges that most of those with whom he has spoken are reluctant to get out in front of the issue.
"Ultimately, one group will have to take the lead," says Sheineson, who says the strawberry industry may be the first to launch a major education effort, since strawberries have such a short shelf-life and the benefits of irradiation are so powerful. "Any communications campaign needs to highlight the safety issues, but also emphasize how the product looks on the shelf, and whether it costs less."
Unfortunately, most food companies remember the experience of Quaker Oats. After its Golden Grain division used the irradiated mushroom bits in Rice-a-Roni and Noodle-Roni dishes, the National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation demanded a recall and claimed the mushrooms were irradiated at a much higher level than allowed by the FDA.
Said Quaker spokesperson Ron Bottrell: "It was convincing evidence to us that there is a controversy."
That controversy will only be dissipated as the public becomes better informed. Unfortunately, most companies appear to have concluded either that the public cannot grasp such complicated issues, or that the media is too intent on creating controversy to allow corporate and scientific viewpoints a fair hearing.
"You can't separate this issue from pesticides, or bovine somatotropin, or genetic engineering of food products," says Sheineson. "Nothing foreign to the food supply can be introduced today without attracting the same kind of response from activist groups."
Ketchum's Barbara Campbell, who heads the firm's food practice in New York goes even further, blaming widespread "food illiteracy" and warning that companies must do more to educate consumers about both nutrition and food safety issues if the future debate is to be conducted in a more rational atmosphere.
The question companies should ask is how many more people will eat—and be killed by—contaminated products before educating the public becomes worthwhile, and whether consumers will hold companies responsible if they knew what the answer to the problem was but stayed silent out of fear.