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Feds Say It’s Safe To Eat, But No One Wants To Sell Irradiated Food

June 4, 1991

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Sam Whitney is betting $10 million that consumers are worried more about salmonella on raw chicken and bugs on fruit than they are gamma rays.

In August, Whitney plans to open the first U.S. company devoted solely to irradiating food, a process that uses gamma rays beamed from radioactive isotopes to kill bugs and bacteria.

It’s a method the federal government says is effective and perfectly safe, but is used virtually nowhere in the United States, mostly because opponents threaten to boycott any company selling irradiated food.

″The general public still equates radiation and irradiation. They think they are going to glow in the dark,″ said Michael Hunt, production manager for J.R. Brooks and Son, Inc. of Homestead, Fla., the nation’s largest mango grower, who doesn’t irradiate his fruit, but is interested in the technology because it kills fruit flies.

He’s right: Irradiation does not make food radioactive.

Here’s how it works. Food moves on a conveyer belt through a sealed chamber where it is bombarded by rays produced by cobalt-60 or cesium-137. Quick exposure to what amounts to a superstrong X-ray breaks chemical bonds that lead to decay and sustain tiny parasites.

The cobalt-60 comes from a Canadian firm and the cesium-137 is a waste product of the nuclear weapons industry for which the Department of Energy has been trying to find new uses.

Another method of producing the rays is with a linear accelerator, which doesn’t need radioactive materials and, if found effective, would likely eliminate opposition to irradiation based strictly on concern about handling of the isotopes.

The process is used to sterilize medical supplies, which is where the 20 or so independent irradiation companies in the United States get most of their business. The federal government allows spices, pork, grains, fruit and vegetables to be irradiated and is finalizing rules specifying how it should be used for poultry.

Of those, spices are virtually the only food irradiated in this country.

Whitney, president of Vindicator Inc. in Plant City, Fla., calls the people who oppose food irradiation ″a bunch of kooks″ and counters their concerns by saying ″fear is the easiest thing in the world to spread.″

But Dr. Walter Bernstein, a physician who founded Food and Water, Inc., five years ago to fight food irradiation, said more research is needed about its effects on humans.

″We’ve stopped them all, except for Vindicator, and we’ll get Vindicator, too,″ said Bernstein. ″The food industry would sell anything if it sells, but this is not going to sell.″

Whitney disagrees, saying consumers will welcome the chance to buy produce free of bugs and poultry without salmonella or other food poisoning bacteria.

Federal law said irradiated food must be stamped with a special label.

″We want it stamped big,″ said Whitney. ″Why would we go to all this trouble to make it safe and not put a label on it? Why would we spend $10 million?″

Whitney said his plant was paid for by about 550 stockholders, who are interested more in safe food than a return on their investment. But he said he has plenty of food company customers waiting for his plant to open so they can use the service. He won’t name them, however, and said he doesn’t have any signed contracts.

Whitney clearly sees a market that seems to be eluding other irradiation companies.

RTI of Rockaway, N.J., for example, was one of the petitioners who got the Food and Drug Administration to consider irradiating poultry, but an official at the firm said RTI would continue to confine its work to medical equipment and spices because there is no market for irradiated chicken.

Many other scientists are studying the process, with varying opinions about its value.

″Some evidence indicates that irradiated foods are more, not less, subject to infections with certain fungi,″ said Dr. Donald Louria, chairman of preventive medicine at the New Jersey Medical School.

He also warns about nutritional losses.

Dr. Jay B. Fox Jr., a chemist researching irradiation for the Agriculture Department, acknowledged that the process causes pork to lose some thiamin, a food component needed by humans to break down sugar, but is effective in ridding pork of the causes of trichinosis. He also confirmed that there is a small vitamin loss in irradiated vegetables and fruits.

The process also changes the texture of some foods.

Strawberries, which rot easily have been considered a likely candidate for the preservation that irradiation offers. But research by Dr. Noel Sommer, a plant pathologist at the University of California, showed that when irradiated strawberries were shipped, the jostling during transit made them softer than non-irradiated fruit.

The strawberry would look OK, Sommer said, but ″it was like a little bag of water.″

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