In the wake of the latest Salmonella recall, Congress is holding well-publicized food safety hearings, and food safety may be rising on the priority list of the Obama administration. One question that arises is whether the perceived crisis in food safety will lead lawmakers and the public to revisit the option of food irradiation. The New York Times recently ran a nice piece on the topic. The article begins:  

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.

The article quotes Suresh Pillai, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Research at Texas A&M University, as saying “It’s unnecessary for people to be getting sick today with pathogens in spinach or pathogens in peanut butter.” He describes the potential for irradiation of food as “humongous” and says that “[w]e have the technologies to prevent this kind of illness.” 

As discussed previously on this blog, irradiation has wide support in the food industry and even has the support of plaintiffs’ lawyers such as Bill Marler, who has written a lengthy three-part series on the topic.  

The question may not be whether irradiation is another tool that can prevent food-borne illness, but rather why is irradiation not being used on a wide-scale. Mr. Pillai likened fears of irradiation to “early phobias about the pasteurization of milk.” Aside from lengthy delays in FDA approval, consumer fear may be the problem. The only solutions may lie in (1) a joint effort between industry and lawmakers to educate the public on the benefits and safety of food irradiation, and (2) action by Congress and the FDA to help provide industry with the resources and political cover to begin using irradiation on a wide scale.