Radiation Treatment Lowers Nutrition and Raises Spoilage Issues

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on August 22, published a new federal regulation permitting “but not requiring” the use of ionizing irradiation for the control of food-borne pathogens and extension of shelf life in fresh iceberg lettuce and fresh spinach.

In plain English this means that these greens, when conventionally grown, may now be zapped with high-energy Gamma rays, or electron beams (the same technology as x-rays only much more powerful). Scientific literature suggests that irradiation destroys valuable nutrients, weaken cellular structure, and leaves foods even more susceptible to spoilage. It may also, in some food cases, create dangerous chemical byproducts.

Take Action:
There is a thirty day period (expiring on Monday September 22) for the filing of objections with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to their irradiation rule. Unfortunately the FDA no longer accepts regular e-mails. Instead, you may:

send a fax to 301-827-6870
send mail or hand delivery to: Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061, Rockville, MD 20852.

Be sure to reference Docket No. FDA-1999-F-2405 in any communications.

A more complex electronic method for filing comments can be found at the Federal eRulemaking Portal http://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting comments on Docket No. FDA-1999-F-2405, Irradiation in the Production, Processing and Handling of Food, Final Rule published August 22, 2008.

Since many federal offices delay delivery of snail-mail to perform security checks, consider fax communication wherever possible.

Some Irradiation Pros and Cons
Proponents of irradiation cite recent disease outbreaks from E. coli and other food-borne pathogens as a way to eliminate the problem. Yet evidence that indicates that radiation actually lowers the incidence of food-borne illness in the population is largely speculative and not based on actual population statistics. (For example, see http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol7no3_supp/tauxe.htm) Besides nutritional degradation, opponents cite losses in flavor, texture and color, as well as the presence of by-products of radiolysis left behind in the treated foods.

According to Food and Water Watch (http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org), an organization working to ensure clean water and safe food, vitamin loss can vary with the type of food, temperature of irradiation, and availability of oxygen; these losses generally increasing with larger doses of radiation.

Stored irradiated food will experience greater vitamin loss than non-irradiated food. Vitamins C, B1, and E are key nutrients reduced in foods exposed to commercial levels of irradiation. And cooking further accelerates vitamin destruction in irradiated foods.

Irradiated food must be identified with the radura the symbol for food treated with ionizing radiation. But this could be change in the near future. The FDA is currently weighing a new rule that would reduce the requirements for the labeling of irradiated food. And the USDA is considering allowing low-level radiation of animal carcasses at slaughter plants.

The public’s frequently expressed distaste for controversial food irradiation seems to be driving attempts to decrease labeling requirements.

Organics Not at Risk – for now!
At this time, irradiation can only be used on conventionally raised produce. Consumers should know that federal organic standards currently exclude irradiation.

However, this may not be the case in the future.

For example, the bagged spinach associated with the E. coli outbreak in September, 2006 had been rinsed at a Natural Selection Foods/ Earthbound Farm plant. Understandably Earthbound Farm, a giant provider of both organic and conventional veggies, is looking into effective sanitation methods that will still allow there organic products to be certified as organic by the USDA.

As recently reported in the Los Angeles Times, Earthbound Farm’s Vice President for Food Safety said “If it were proven effective at eradicating pathogens while preserving the freshness and nutritional integrity of the food without causing adverse environmental effects, then the National Organic Standards Board might reconsider these rules, but I don’t think we have all the answers yet.”

Some Additional Things to Remember

Radiation treatment of food is considered a food additive, and is therefore subject to Food and Drug Administration oversight. However, some other consumables may be irradiated without labeling and are beyond the scope of this discussion. This includes spices that are routinely irradiated for pests, as well as grains in storage, etc.

®Radiation does NOT make treated food radioactive. Proponents of food radiation, particularly those involved in the business of manufacturing and selling the equipment used in this process, frequently answer critics by repeating this “mantra” while at the same time ducking the important questions of nutritional value, cellular stability, and radiolytic by-products which, while not radioactive in themselves, may pose health hazards as yet not well understood.

As always Cornucopia will do its best to report current changes and proposed changes in the laws affecting organic food so that you will be able to take quick responsive action.

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