Radiant Hopes for the Holidays

By: 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.

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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