Radiant Hopes for the Holidays
Duane D. Freese
, TCS Columnist
Finding a silver
lining from the recent anthrax scares isn't easy. But thanks to the Postal Service,
people may finally discover one: a clearer understanding about a life-saving
food processing technology called irradiation.
If you want to contribute with our work, sending no money,
The Postal Service hopes to protect its customers and workers from anthrax by
having some mail "irradiated" - treating the mail with ionized radiation
in order to kill the anthrax. The cost is estimated at about a penny a piece
for the process that the mail will go through. The greater the use of the technology,
the lower the cost should become.
The fact that mail will go through the process and not become "radioactive"
ought to provide an educational alert to consumers that the process poses no
danger to them. And with a little additional research, they may discover how
much more they'd benefit if a similar treatment, at much lower energy levels,
was applied to their food.
There are three processes by which products are irradiated - one involves gamma
rays, another electron beams and a third X-rays. None of them is applied in
quantities posing any dangers to people. The processes do pose one significant
threat, however: To a host of pathogenic organisms in food -- Salmonella, E.Coli,
Cambylobacter, Listeria, Shigella and Cyclospora.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) looks favorably upon irradiation, properly
done. It compares it to the familiar pasteurization that makes milk and some
fruit juices safe. "Careful industry standards and regulations monitor
the effectiveness of the pasteurization process," the CDC has noted. "The
pasteurization occurs just before the milk goes into the carton, so the chance
of re-contamination after pasteurization is nearly zero. Similar strategies
and designs can make food irradiation as effective as milk pasteurization."
But a misinformation campaign put out by self-described consumer organizations
and by their backers in the organic food industry has led many consumers to
view notifications that a product was irradiated as tantamount to its being
labeled with a skull and cross bones. And their scare tactics are being employed
to smear the companies that create the tools used to kill anthrax in the mail.
The Naderite group as Public Citizen recently complained to the FCC that "from
January 4, 2000 through October 17, 2001, [the companies providing irradiation
machines to the Postal Service] Titan and/or SureBeam issued via their Internet
Web sites 49 press releases regarding the companies' food irradiation services.
In 48 of the 49 press releases, the companies refer to their irradiation services
as 'electronic pasteurization' or 'electronic pasteurizing.' This use of these
terms is fundamentally and materially false and misleading."
Despite these protests, the CDC supports irradiation of food. It estimates that
widespread use of this "cold pasteurization" procedure to kill parasites
and other dangerous microorganisms would prevent 880,000 illnesses and 350 lives
- mostly children and old people.
Irradiation can work to protect the mail. And if people become aware of its
other virtues, then maybe it will be used to protect more of our food. That
would make for grateful and hungry celebrants this Thanksgiving season, and
grateful mailmen who deliver us those horrors of the holidays - fruitcakes.
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