Friday, June 20, 2008

Tainted Tomatoes

Salmonella is still in the news. Reuters reported earlier today:

U.S. food safety officials on Wednesday said more than 350 people have fallen ill in a Salmonella outbreak linked to certain types of tomatoes.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 383 people in 30 states have been infected with Salmonella Saintpaul, a rare strain of the bacteria.

The most recent report of onset is June 5 and at least 48 people have been hospitalized, CDC said.
Yesterday, the New York Times noted:
The Food and Drug Administration may never be able to pinpoint the origin of salmonella-tainted tomatoes that have sickened hundreds of people, an agency official said Wednesday.

“We may not ultimately know the farm where these came from,” Dr. David Acheson, the agency’s associate commissioner for foods, told reporters in a conference call. “Some trace-backs that we thought were looking pretty good have been falling apart.”

Dr. Acheson said he remained optimistic, but added, “I’m trying to be realistic.”

The agency is investigating a cluster of nine people who ate tomatoes at the same restaurant chain, but has not disclosed the chain’s name or location.
Finding the source may ultimately prove irrelevant as well as fruitless. (Can tomatoes be fruitless? That may be an oxymoron. But I digress.)

Last week in the Chicago Tribune
, the former head of the FDA's office of biotechnology, Dr. Henry I. Miller, lamented:
Unfortunately, produce growers cannot protect us 100 percent of the time. A several-month-old outbreak of food poisoning first linked to a rare strain of bacteria called Salmonella Saintpaul in raw tomatoes is tied to at least 160 cases of illness in 16 states in the West, Midwest and Northeast.

Modern farming operations—especially the larger ones—already employ strict standards designed to keep food free of pathogens. And most often they're effective.

But because agriculture is an outdoor activity and subject to all manner of unpredictable challenges, there are limits to how safe we can make it. If the goal is to make a cultivated field completely safe from microbial contamination, the only definitive solution is to pave it over and build a parking lot on it. But we'd only be trading very rare agricultural mishaps for fender-benders.
Dr. Miller, who is the co-author (with Gregory Conko) of The Frankenfood Myth, suggests there are ways of building confidence in the food supply while making it safer:
In the longer term, technology has an important role—or more accurately, it would have if only the organic food advocates and other food-kooks would permit it.

Irradiation of food is an important, safe and effective tool that has been vastly underused, largely due to opposition from the organic food lobby and to government over-regulation. "If even 50 percent of meat and poultry consumed in the United States were irradiated, the potential impact of food-borne disease would be a reduction [of] 900,000 cases and 300 deaths [a year]," according to Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research at the University of Minnesota.
This point reminded me of an article I once wrote (history lesson alert) about the benefits of food irradiation. An early version appeared in The New York City Tribune in 1989; the version that appears below ran in The Metro Herald in August 1993:
The Benefits of Food Irradiation
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

Nearly 40 percent of the poultry sold in the United States contains deadly salmonella bacteria. According to Consumers' Research magazine, 40,000 cases of salmonella infections are reported each year, though experts believe this is only the tip of the iceberg—the actual number could be between 400,000 and four million. At least 500 people die each year from salmonella infections.

Salmonella is present in a wide range of food products—chicken, beef, pork, shellfish, raw milk, eggs, and fish. It is almost impossible to avoid. A relatively safe, cheap, and simple method to prevent salmonella infections, however, is now available: ionized food processing, also known as "food irradiation."

Because "radiation" is the Freddie Krueger of the anti-consumer network—the nightmare of those groups founded and funded by Ralph Nader as well as all manner of anti-nuclear activist groups—ionized food processing has not yet been fully accepted by American consumers. Still, after more than 35 years of tests and experiments, we know more about food irradiation than almost any other form of food preservation.

The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations recommends ionized food processing—which uses low levels of safe radiation to break down the DNA of infectious bacteria and fungi—as a means of preserving food for the hungry people of the Third World.

USA Weekend magazine reported recently (August 20-22, 1993) that the beef industry may begin to use ionization techniques if a study it is currently conducting shows consumer support for the process. Beef producers probably have nothing to worry about. When Florida approved the sale of ionized food, one Miami supermarket chain, Lorenzo's, began selling irradiated food at premium prices—and customers, pleased by its longer shelf life, quickly bought up all the stock.

Still, fearmongering and irrational beliefs about radiation have prevented the general use of food ionization, to the disadvantage of American consumers. David Rothbard, president of the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT), a grass-roots consumers' organization, has noted: "Opponents of this technology are well organized and have succeeded in misleading the public, as well as many of our elected officials. Relying on flawed studies that have been rejected by almost every credible scientist, these opponents have used scare tactics to block the widespread use of this needed technology."

CFACT and two other groups, the American Council on Science and Health and the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology, have begun a nationwide campaign to encourage use of ionized food preservation. These groups work to educate consumers and grocers across the United States about ionized food preservation. Their message includes these points:

Food irradiation delays spoilage. We lose millions of dollars worth of produce and meats each year due to spoilage. Ionizing radiation can delay the spoilage of highly perishable fresh fish and shellfish, and prolong the shelf life of fruits like strawberries.

Food irradiation is a substitute for toxic pesticides. The American Council on Science and Health reports that "low-dose irradiation can kill insects in grains and other stored foods" and can substitute for fumigants like EDB (now banned by EPA regulations) that are hazardous to farm workers and food handlers.

Food irradiation eliminates trichinosis hazards in pork.

Food irradiation kills salmonella and other infectious germs.

Despite all these advantages, some vocal opposition to ionized food processing still exists. Explains Craig Rucker, executive director of CFACT: "While public demonstrations have intimidated some grocers to boycott ‘irradiated' food, the more serious obstacles to advancing the technology lie in the state legislatures. Most states have passed laws requiring companies to label ionized foods with the word ‘irradiated.'" The clear purpose of this legislation, he adds, "is to saddle ionized food with a negative nuclear connotation." (David Rothbard asks, "Why not just make the labels carry a picture of a mushroom cloud?")

Alaska, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, and other states are considering even more extreme legislation that would ban the sale and distribution of ionized foods; Maine, New York, and New Jersey have already instituted sales bans. These laws carry harsh penalties for offenders.

Fears of contamination from food irradiation are as foolish as fears about contamination from a microwave oven, a common household appliance. USA Weekend notes that despite opposition from some groups like the Beyond Beef campaign, "tests show no ill effects of irradiation." Every form of cooking is, in essence, a form of radiation. A barbecue uses the radiation from flames; sun-dried raisins use the radiation from the sun's rays; smoked salmon is preserved with the radiation of burning hickory; an egg is poached with electric stovetop radiation. To deny American consumers inexpensive, safe, and disease-free fruits, meats, and vegetables on the basis of anti-nuclear hysteria is simply bad policy.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Richard Sincere, vice chairman of the Libertarian Party of Virginia, is a candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates in the 49th District (Arlington County).
To be sure, irradiation is not a panacea that will prevent all food-borne illnesses, as Miller notes in his Chicago Tribune piece. (It will not destroy toxins produced by bacteria even as it destroys the bacteria themselves.) Still, Miller adds:
There is technology available today that could inhibit microorganisms' ability to grow within plant cells and block the synthesis of the bacterial toxins. This technology also can produce antibodies that can be administered to infected patients to neutralize the toxins and produce effective treatments for diarrhea, the primary symptom of food poisoning.
This solution may find its own opposition, however, because it involves recombinant DNA technology, also known as gene-splicing or genetic modification.

Who knew that Mary Shelley was really writing metaphorically about the attack of the killer tomatoes?

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