In the endless war between people and microorganisms, key battlegrounds are strung out all along the vast industrial chain that links farm, slaughterhouse, supermarket, and table. And it's not going so well at the moment for Homo sapiens.
Contamination at points along this chain triggers periodic infestations of bacteria, mold, and parasites that sicken up to 30 percent of the people who live in industrialized countries each year. The costs in medical treatments and lost productivity add up to billions of dollars a year, according to the Worldwatch Institute (Washington, D.C.). In the United States alone, food-borne pathogens afflict at least 76 million people per year, hospitalize 325 000, and kill more than 5000, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Atlanta, Ga.).
In fact, last year, with two of the biggest meat recalls ever, was the worst on record for the United States. The facts suggest that we humans are merely warm, wet accommodations for the citizen-rulers of Planet Bacteria.
Now, though, humanity is rolling out the weapons of mass destruction. In the next few months, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA, Rockville, Md.) is expected to approve the use of gamma rays, electron beams, and X-rays to irradiate ready-to-eat foods like hot dogs, deli meats, frozen entrees, and snack foods. Unlike the European Union, which has approved irradiation only for spices and dried herbs, the U.S. government is on the verge of blessing irradiation for almost all food sold throughout the country, from wheat to meat. Already, you can saunter down the frozen-food aisle of any Piggly Wiggly supermarket in the United States and pick up ground beef that's been irradiated free of deadly bacteria.
At the same time, irradiation facilities are being built in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, and other countries to kill insects in tropical fruits like mangoes, papayas, and dates instead of using toxic, ozone-depleting methyl bromide. The treatment boosts product quality, extends shelf life from days to weeks, and saves money because produce can be shipped by boat instead of by faster, more expensive planes.
Still, even with these advantages, food irradiation faces some serious obstacles. No. 1, arguably, is consumer perception. Though many people appear to be gradually warming (so to speak) to the idea of irradiated foods, others are having a hard time reconciling the idea of safer food with the mushroom clouds that spring to mind when they hear the word "radiation."
Consumer advocates have protested the introduction of irradiated foods into grocery stores and school lunch programs (the United States Department of Agriculture [USDA, Washington, D.C.] approved irradiated ground beef for school lunch programs just this past May). While some of these objections are based on the (so far) unsubstantiated supposition that irradiated food causes cancer, many irradiation opponents, and food safety experts, too, question whether irradiation is the best way to fix the giant disease factory the global food industry has become.