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
Critics point out that irradiation may produce food products that
at best have lower nutritional value; at worst are carcinogenic.
Irradition 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 Admnstration (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.
The question, 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?"
Meanwhile, 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 coverup of a radioative 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 electricty 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 microcuries
in 39 plants. Subsequently, the NRC recalled 2,500 3M units used in
the food, beverage, costmetic 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 more irradiation.
SOURCES: 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 E1-E2, reprinted from
SCIENCE NEWS; S. F. EXAMINER (AP), 2/19/88, "Ionizing guns recalled
over radiation fear," p A5.