No one disputes the fact that the U.S. food supply is the safest in the world. But recent, widely publicized outbreaks of food-borne illness have focused attention on various ways that the food industry can provide even greater food safety protections for consumers. One of the technologies that can be used to advance food safety is irradiation -- a safe, simple and inexpensive process used since the 1950s to kill harmful pathogens in many foods and to preserve their shelf life.
The food irradiation process is quite straightforward: Food is exposed to a carefully measured amount of intense radiant energy, called ionizing radiation. This cold radiant energy kills parasites and microorganisms such as E. coli 01 57:H7 and salmonella, and -- like the heat pasteurization of milk -- greatly reduces harmful bacteria. Irradiation results in a safe, high-quality processed food product: Pathogens in raw poultry or meat can be reduced by 99.9 percent by a low "pasteurization" dose of radiation.
Because irradiation does not substantially raise the temperature of the food being processed, nutrient losses are small, and the taste, texture, nutrition or appearance of foods is not affected. In fact, irradiation produces so little chemical change in food that it is difficult to design a test to determine whether a food has been irradiated.
With all this in mind, the FDA undertook an exhaustive, four-year examination to determine the safety and effectiveness of red meat irradiation. Based on the strong scientific evidence from a host of sources, FDA approved the use of irradiation on red meat, thus joining authoritative scientific bodies ranging from the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association in recognizing the many benefits that food irradiation offers consumers.
Red meat irradiation joins sanitary food production practices and good handling practices by consumers as another of the many food safety tools Americans can employ to ensure a healthy and wholesome food supply.
But will irradiated products be made available to consumers? Granted, the approval by FDA of red meat irradiation follows enactment of new legislation that changes irradiation labeling requirements to stop scaring people away from irradiated foods, and studies conducted in grocery stores have shown that, once consumers understand what irradiation does and what its benefits are, they overwhelmingly support the process. Yet, without more positive changes and extensive educational programs, consumers may still harbor unwarranted suspicions about irradiation.
By approving red meat irradiation, FDA has taken an important step toward getting this important technology to the marketplace. The American public must understand and embrace irradiation as an important food-safety tool with strong consumer benefits, particularly for those most at risk from food-borne pathogens, like young children and the elderly.
Consumer acceptance of irradiation means that food processors can employ this effective technology to help keep America's food supply the safest in the world.
KELLY D. JOHNSTON, a former secretary of the Senate, is the executive vice president for government affairs and communications of the National Food Processors Association.