19. GLOWING OUTLOOK FOR FOOD IRRADIATION BUSINESS
The food industry is going high-tech with a seemingly innocent
procedure called irradiation -- a process that delays ripening by exposing food
to radioactive materials that kill insects, mold, and bacteria.
point out that irradiation may produce food products that at best have lower nutritional
value; at worst are carcinogenic. Irradiation also poses significant health threats
to workers and the public in transportation, storage, and disposal of radioactive
waste. And there is real concern over the safety of radioactive devices used in
food, beverage, cosmetic, and drug industries.
While spices are the first
irradiated edibles marketed in the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
also has approved irradiation for use on produce and some meats. Interestingly,
the FDA regulates irradiation not as a process but as an additive.
of course, is exactly what is "added" to irradiated food? Irradiated
food looks and smells better for an extended time, but little is known about the
chemical changes induced by the process.
One science writer posed the complex
issues when he asked "What do you get when you irradiate an apple with 100,000
rads of gamma rays. Is that irradiation a process or an additive? Who should control
it? Does it pose a carcinogenic threat to humans? Since it reduces food spoilage
and replaces dangerous pesticides, is it a blessing for the world's hungry?"
And then he asked, "Why are there no answers to these questions?"
the track record in irradiation facilities is anything but reassuring. The Radiation
Technology plant in Far Rockaway, New Jersey, was closed by the Nuclear Regulatory
Commission (NRC) for willfully supplying false information about repeated safety
violations; the NRC also shut down International Nutronics in Dover, New Jersey,
after workers reported a cover-up of a radioactive spill of a tank of water containing
cobalt-60 rods; and workers in Isomedix Co., Parsippany, New Jersey, were told
to clean up leaks by pouring radioactive water down bathroom toilets and sinks.
Earlier this year, the NRC suspended the use of an industrial air-purifying
device that leaked tiny particles of radioactive polonium at plants
around the nation. The NRC also order 3M to recall for inspection all
45,000 of the ionizing air guns used to control static electricity and
remove dust from product containers. Of 828 plants inspected so far,
contamination was found at 118 sites; of those, the radiation exceeded
the reportable limit of .005 micro-curies in 39 plants. Subsequently,
the NRC recalled 2,500 3M units used in the food, beverage, cosmetic
and drug industries.
Given the potential problems, one would expect to find the irradiation
issue on the national media agenda; but it isn't. Meanwhile, as serious questions
go unanswered, the government has proposed federal regulations that would allow
UTNE READER, May/June 1987, "Irradiation
Business Gears Up," by Karin Winegar, pp 29-30; SAN FRANCISCO EXAMINER SPECTRA,
2/25/88, "Food Irradiation," by Rick Weiss, pp El-E2, reprinted from
SCIENCE NEWS; S. F. EXAMINER (AP), 2/19/88, "Ionizing guns recalled over
radiation fear," p A5.