New York Times

Before the recent revelation that peanut butter could kill people, even before the spinach scare of three summers ago, the nation’s food industry made a proposal. It asked the government for permission to destroy germs in many processed foods by zapping them with radiation.

That was about nine years ago, in the twilight of the Clinton administration. The government has taken limited action since.

After spinach tainted with a strain of E. coli killed three people and sickened more than 200 others in 2006, the Food and Drug Administration gave permission for irradiation of spinach and iceberg lettuce. It has yet to begin. Meat irradiation is permitted but rarely used. Among common items on the grocery shelf, only spices and some imported products, like mangoes from India, are routinely treated with radiation.

The technology to irradiate food has been around for the better part of a century. The federal government says that it is safe, and many experts believe that it could reduce or even eliminate the food scares that periodically sweep through American society.

It might even have killed the salmonella that reached grocery shelves in recent weeks after a factory in Georgia shipped tainted peanut butter and peanut paste, which wound up in products as diverse as cookies and dog treats.

But irradiation has not been widely embraced in this country.

Food manufacturers worry that the apparent benefits do not justify the cost or the potential consumer backlash. Some consumer groups complain that widespread irradiation of food after processing would simply cover up the food industry’s hygiene problems. And some advocacy groups question the long-term safety of irradiation.

Amid all these doubts, one thing is certain – food poisoning continues. The cases that rise to public attention are only the tip of the iceberg. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that there are 76 million cases of food-borne illness each year in the United States. The vast majority are mild, but the agency estimates there are 5,000 deaths from food-borne disease and 325,000 hospitalizations each year.

All of this drives advocates of irradiation crazy.

“Our society is running around with our head in the sand because we have ways to prevent illness and death that aren’t being used,” said Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis. “The rules are so tight on irradiation that you can’t pull it out and use it when a new problem arises, and that’s to the detriment of the American public.”

Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, likened fears of irradiation to early phobias about the pasteurization of milk.

“It’s unnecessary for people to be getting sick today with pathogens in spinach or pathogens in peanut butter,” said Professor Pillai, who described the potential for irradiation of food as “humongous.” “We have the technologies to prevent this kind of illness.”

Food is irradiated by brief exposure to X-rays, gamma rays or an electron beam. The process is intended to reduce or eliminate harmful bacteria, insects and parasites, and it also can also extend the life of some products.

Advocates say it is particularly effective at killing pathogens in items like ground beef and lettuce, where they might be mixed into the middle of the product or hiding in a crevice that is hard to clean by traditional means.

The United States is dotted with irradiation centers, but they are generally used to sterilize medical supplies like bandages and implants, not food.

Food and Water Watch, an advocacy group, has long maintained that irradiation would be too expensive, impractical and sometimes ineffective because it might hide filthy conditions at food processing plants. Patty Lovera, the group’s assistant director, said irradiation not only kills bacteria but can also destroy nutrients in food.

“There’s a whole impact on the food product, which we think is an unacceptable cost,” Ms. Lovera said.

She pointed out that irradiated beef was offered at many grocery stores nationwide at the beginning of the decade but it did not last long. Customers were turned off by the higher price and by the extended shelf life of irradiated beef.

“People that did the shopping, they would look at the date and be freaked out at how long it would be good for,” she said.

Food industry officials, meanwhile, remain wary of irradiation because of the upfront costs and the potential public reaction to any technique with the word “radiation” in it. (Irradiation leaves no traces of radioactive material in food.)

One potential test of public acceptance could come with the marketing of irradiated spinach and lettuce. After the E. coli outbreak in 2006, the spinach industry lost 30 percent of its business. The F.D.A. approved irradiation for spinach and iceberg lettuce in August.

“There’s no shortage of people who are looking at it,” said Hank Giclas, vice president for strategic planning, science and technology for the Western Growers Association. “I don’t know of anyone who is moving forward with it at this time.”

Officials at two irradiation companies said business for food was growing slightly.

“It’s changed a little bit, but not a whole lot,” said Harlan Clemmons, president and chief operating officer of Sadex, which operates an irradiation plant in Iowa. He said he does twice as much business irradiating pet treats and livestock feed as human food.

“It’s very amazing,” he said. “There are so many products that could be made safe by using irradiation.”

It remains an open question if peanut butter or products with peanut paste would be likely candidates for the technique.

Irradiation typically does not work so well on products with high amounts of fat or oil like peanut butter because they can turn rancid during the process. A spokesman for the American Peanut Council said irradiation was tested but found unacceptable because it degraded the taste of the nut.

Nonetheless, Professor Pillai said a low dose of radiation might be effective in killing traces of salmonella in peanut butter – or manufactured products with peanut paste – without ruining the taste. He said it would not work as a substitute for basic hygiene and food safety measures.

“You customize the amount of dose with the product that you are using,” he said.

Similarly, a spokesman for the Grocery Manufacturers Association said food companies should make sure plants are clean and follow good manufacturing and food safety practices. If problems remain afterwards, then irradiation could be an option, provided it is permitted by the federal government.

The association, then called Grocery Manufacturers of America, was among the sponsors of the application that was filed with the F.D.A. nine years ago, which sought approval to irradiate ready-to-eat meat and poultry products and fruit and vegetable products.

Now that spinach and iceberg lettuce have been approved, it is focusing on persuading the F.D.A. to permit irradiation of hot dogs and deli meats. An F.D.A. spokesman declined to comment, saying the agency does not comment on open petitions.

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