German Greens and their European Union acolytes have long fought scientific advances in food production and protection. After a spice manufacturer in Stuttgart employed the world's first commercial food irradiation in 1957, West Germany banned the practice in 1959 and has since allowed few exceptions. So it's no small scandal that the latest fatal E. coli outbreak has been linked to an organic German farm that shuns modern farming techniques.
Officials on Saturday confirmed that sprouts grown south of Hamburg were contaminated with the deadly strain that has so far killed 35 people and sickened thousands. The news will comfort European consumers, who have been afraid to eat greens for weeks. But the panic isn't over: Farmers want hundreds of millions of euros in reparations from Berlin, which initially named Spanish cucumbers as a suspect and cautioned against all salad greens, and there are calls for a new, Europe-wide food-safety certification system.
So here we go again: agitation for more money and regulation, though agricultural authorities still don't know where the German farm erred. Sprouts require warm and humid farm environments, which makes them particularly hospitable to bacteria. But both harmful and harmless E. coli strains are present in the intestines of most animals, as well as human beings. No amount of standardizations or certifications will guarantee E. coli's eradication from food.
The best practice for doing so would be, well, irradiation, which involves sending gamma rays or electron beams into meat, poultry and produce. The process can deactivate up to 99.999% of E. coli, and was declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration almost 50 years ago. Even so, less than 10% of the global food supply is irradiated.
The problem is largely that the term "irradiation" sounds like what might have happened to Blinky, the three-eyed fish that Bart Simpson caught downstream from the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant in a 1990 "Simpsons" TV episode. Yet study after study has turned up no evidence that zapping food with low doses of radiation damages human health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization have all endorsed the process as safe and highly effective.
These facts haven't discouraged the even more effective media campaigns of a few pressure groups that never met a food technology they didn't fear. The Organic Consumers Association—which has used Blinky's image in separate anti-"Frankenfood" publications—warns of "irradiation-induced vitamin deficiencies, the inactivity of enzymes in the food, DNA damage, and toxic radiolytic products in the food." A March 2011 article in the "Activist Post" claims that "mutated" irradiated food "is the cause for many forms of cancer and genetic modification."
The U.S. allows irradiation of meat, eggs, poultry and some fruits and vegetables, but its labeling requirements effectively discourage widespread use of the technology. In Europe, regulations are even tighter, as they are against synthetic pesticides and genetically modified foods. Only irradiated herbs and seasonings may be traded throughout the EU market, and as in the U.S. no irradiated foods may be sold as "organic."
Article courtesy of online.wsj.com
Image courtesy of Simon Howden