Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality

The E. Coli Cookbook

By David G. Young

WASHINGTON, August 26, 1997 --

The waitress looked at me like I was insane. Realizing the subject of her perturbation, I quickly recanted my order for a medium-rare hamburger. "Make that well-done!"

Less than a week after the largest meat recall in American history, public attention to the perils of undercooked ground beef had to be at an all-time high. Diners at Burger King and Boston Market had to settle for chicken and fish as the owners restocked the stores with newer, supposedly untainted patties. Workers at Hudson Foods' Nebraska plant were forced to sit at home and watch the whole spectacle on the news.

At least nobody died this time. The last E. coli outbreak to grab national attention was in 1993 when four children died of food poisoning spread by hamburgers from Jack in the Box restaurants in the West. Jack in the Box served as a convenient scapegoat last time, just as Hudson Foods became the fall guy for the more recent outbreak.

While cases like these attract headlines, they are just the tip of the iceberg. Every year about 9,000 people die and many millions more are sickened by food poisoning.1 These are the people you don't read about in the newspaper. There is usually no easy way to trace the source of the contaminated food, and therefore no easy scapegoats to be targeted. But there are plenty of people to blame.

A large number of these deaths and illnesses are easily preventable. Processes exist that can practically eliminate these deadly parasites from the meats available at supermarkets and in restaurants. After the inexpensive treatment, meats are far safer and have a longer shelf life. There's only one problem with treated products -- they won't let you buy them.

The "they" in this case, isn't big business. It's not even big government. It's thousands of people in the paranoid and scientifically-ignorant public. The problem is that the process has a really scary name: irradiation. You can almost hear the screams as it's mentioned. Any word with "radiation" in it conjures up images of sickly, hairless children with enormous tumors growing out of their necks. Mention irradiation to a Midwestern mother and she'll probably sign a petition to ban it before you can utter the word's final syllable.

The reality is far less frightening. Irradiation simply uses energy beams (like the electron gun in your television) to kill bacteria and microscopic worms in raw meat and vegetables. It's been used since the 1950s by the U.S. military and is widely accepted in many parts of the world. Unfortunately, North America isn't one of them. Anti-radiation hysteria in the public has so far kept irradiated foods off the supermarket shelves.

Consumer and environmental groups haven't helped. Organizations like Jeremy Rifkin's Pure Food Campaign and the Sierra Club have done more than their share to whip up public fears. Organic food activists have found few rational concerns with which to challenge the overwhelming scientific evidence favoring irradiation. They correctly point out that the process slightly reduces the content of vitamins in foods (much like cooking) and increases the number of potentially carcinogenic "free-radicals" by a few parts per billion.

But fuel of their opposition has little to do with nutrition and a lot to do with an elitist and demagogic pursuit of organic fare. As Martin Teitel gloated in Sierra Club's journal last year, "garden-variety happy eaters are winning the food fight against further technological tinkering with the food supply."2 While organic food with unblemished nutritional content may be of importance to the precious few environmentalists who can afford the hefty price-tag, it no longer has any value to the thousands of average Americans who died of food poisoning in the past year.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation of pork in 1986, and of chicken in 1990. While it continues to drag its feet on approval for beef products, such permission is of little practical significance. Unless you're dining in a nursing home, the space shuttle, or a Bosnian fox hole, you'd have a pretty hard time getting your hands on irradiated foods. Threatened boycotts by activists have frightened grocers from stocking treated products for over a decade.

The present consumer climate makes the future of irradiated foods extremely unpromising. Even now, after 20,000 pounds of potentially contaminated meat have been recalled and 12 people have been sickened by e. coli, barely a word is heard about the simple process that could have prevented the entire episode. At least nobody died this time. Next time -- and there will be a next time -- we might not be so lucky.

1. Council for Agricultural Science and Technology Report, reprinted by Consumer's Research, Sept. 1996

2. Sierra, March 1996.