Radiation to the Rescue

By D. Dowd Muska
  • Tuesday, October 28, 1997

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, with the support of so-called consumer activists and some in Congress, has requested greater recall power over meat and poultry products. Glickman and his allies have seized upon recent outbreaks of E. coli bacteria in beef as justifications for greater federal authority over the nation’s food industry. But the current food safety debate all but ignores two critical facts: America already has a safer food supply than any other country, and a measure to make beef even safer—irradiation—is being blocked by the federal government.

The World’s Safest? Not Good Enough

Recent outbreaks of E. coli in beef were exceptions to a rock-hard rule: America’s food supply is the safest in the world. Yet despite this undeniable fact, activists continue to call for the federal government to play a larger role. They say as many as 500 Americans die from E. coli a year—a highly dubious claim. "What you really seem to be getting is a known prospect for maybe three or four people a year dying and then a huge black box of assumptions and guesses," said David Murray of the independent Statistical Assessment Service. "The highest-end numbers were selected to get the maximum exposure from [the] press." And there has been plenty of exposure—most of it sympathetic to the more-government argument—in recent months. ABC news reader Peter Jennings, in an August 21 interview with Glickman, pitched this softball: "The Congress will not give the U.S. Department of Agriculture the power to recall food on its own … Mr. Glickman, why won’t they give it to you? … And as a result, is Congress putting Americans at risk?" Predictably, animal-rights groups used the E. coli scare to advance their agenda. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals did not rely solely on the media to provide puff coverage—it immediately launched a public "information" campaign. In one advertisement, Beverly Hills 90210 actress Jennie Garth made the following laughable statement: "Want to make sure the meat in your fridge won’t poison your family? Throw it out. There’s never been a better time to go vegetarian."

Glickman’s Power Grab

As Jennings indicated, Glickman’s request for greater authority, dubbed the "Food Safety Enforcement Enhancement Act," has not met a receptive audience on Capitol Hill. The food industry has mounted a vocal and well-organized resistance as well. Their case is a strong one—Glickman is calling for, among other things, the ability to recall products without a hearing and the right to impose civil and monetary penalties on food companies. This would in effect make him "policeman, prosecutor, judge and executioner," according to Kelly Johnston of the National Food Processors Association (NFPA). The tools already available to the secretary, such as the withdrawal of inspectors from plants and the authority to seek injunctions, amount to de facto recall authority. In addition, the NFPA asserts "… the industry’s own vested interest in food safety and its record of cooperation with government has worked well to ensure the world’s safest food supply."

Making Ourselves Sick

There is research to indicate that additional federal inspection and recall authority cannot have much of an effect on foodborne illnesses. One statistic is particularly staggering: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—a federal agency—found that as much as 97 percent of food poisoning can be linked to improper food handling in the home and in restaurants. For example, polls suggest only a small minority of Americans would be concerned about the safety of cooked meat or poultry left unrefrigerated for over four hours. Only about half are aware of the need to wash a cutting board with soap and water after cutting fresh meat or poultry and before preparing fresh vegetables. Last September, a report by six leading medical, food science and nutrition professionals concluded that "Americans have an inadequate knowledge about their role in preventing foodborne illness." In the report’s foreword, former U. S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop wrote "… I am very concerned that too many Americans do not comprehend the importance of preventing foodborne illness in the home and are therefore not taking some very basic sanitation and food-handling steps that will greatly reduce their risk of sickness and disease." Lloyd J. Filer, one of the report’s authors, asserted "no workable [food safety] agenda can ignore the pressing need of educating Americans about measures to prevent foodborne illness in their homes." Both nonprofit groups and the industry itself are working toward that goal. For example, every member company of the American Meat Institute provided safe cooking and handling instructions on raw meat in 1993, before such information was mandated by the federal government.

Ignoring Irradiation

In 1994, an irradiation equipment manufacturer petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to permit the irradiation of beef, a process already allowed for poultry, pork and spices. Irradiation, which is similar to giving food an X-ray, destroys life-threatening bacteria, including E. coli. But despite the endorsement of the American Medical Association and World Health Organization—as well as its use by 38 other countries—the FDA has not yet approved beef irradiation. Anti-technology advocates, such as Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, claim irradiation is a health hazard. "Threats of boycotts and violence from the Luddite left against companies that irradiate beef … have blocked [irradiation’s] use in the marketplace and intimidated public health officials who would otherwise expedite its use," wrote the Cato Institute’s Jerry Taylor. American Council on Science and Health President Elizabeth M. Whelan, writing in the Wall Street Journal, concurred: "We must listen … to scientists, who are unanimous in their conclusion that food irradiation—not more government regulation—will make America’s food supply even safer." Last month, the House of Representatives approved a bill, sponsored by Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, that directs the FDA to act on beef irradiation within 60 days. "There is ample evidence that it kills pathogens and promotes health," said Ganske, a surgeon.


Food poisoning, despite its exploitation by the dominant media and power-hungry Washington bureaucrats, is not a significant problem in the United States. But one technique that would add an extra element of safety to the nation’s food supply has been trapped for years in bureaucratic limbo. The approval of irradiation for beef will fight food poisoning far more effectively than an expansion of Glickman’s regulatory authority.

Squeezing Out Cider

Outbreaks of the E. coli pathogen in beef this summer prompted Glickman’s calls for greater federal controls, but in August the government also took action on another potential source of E. coli: apple cider. Last fall, minor outbreaks of E. coli in cider from Colorado and Connecticut prompted the FDA to ask cider makers to "voluntarily" label their product as "unpasteurized." (Apple juice, since it is pasteurized, is not at risk for E. coli.) While at this time the FDA has not mandated pasteurization of cider, many believe the agency’s action on labeling is an ominous sign of things to come. Pasteurization, according to cider pressers and loyal customers, destroys the drink’s distinctive, tangy taste, turning it into traditional apple juice. The Boston Globe recently reported the cider industry in New England thinks it may be permanently put out of business. Linda Chase of Chase Farms Cider Mill in Littleton, Massachusetts believes cider may soon become illegal. The Chase mill has been in business for over 60 years, but she fears her family’s way of life may soon be a thing of the past: "We’re going to see how long we can do this before the government shuts us down for no good reason."

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