Health

Irradiated Meat is the Only Safe Meat

| by Harry F Hull MD

Germs In Our Food Can Be Deadly

E. coli is a killer. If your child eats even 100 E. coli O157:H7 bacteria, she can end up with bloody diarrhea and dehydration followed by hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS). HUS is caused by a bacterial toxin that shreds red blood cells and causes the kidneys to shut down. People with HUS need hospital treatment, usually in the intensive care unit including dialysis. The damage may be so severe that a kidney transplant may be necessary. Children and the elderly have the greatest risk of HUS and some die. Ground beef, lettuce and spinach have been the most frequent causes of E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. Right now, E. coli germs are found in about one of every 250 samples of ground beef that are tested.

Salmonella and Listeria are other disease-causing bacteria that are sometimes found in food, including poultry, eggs, ground beef and produce.  Salmonella usually causes diarrhea, but can be more serious - and is sometimes fatal - for infants and the elderly.

Listeria is especially serious for pregnant women, infants, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems. It causes miscarriages, stillbirths, meningitis and blood poisoning. Listeria is a killer – a recent Listeria outbreak in Canada caused by contaminated cold cuts killed 20 people.  

How would you feel if your son died of HUS next week when it could have been prevented by irradiating the hamburger he’ll eat tonight?

Cleanliness Alone Isn't Enough

Nationally, two percent of surgeries are followed by a wound infection. When we can’t prevent every infection in sterile operating rooms, it’s unrealistic to think that E. coli germs can be completely eliminated from food by trying to make processing even more sanitary than it already is. Think about the millions of Staph and Strep germs that are on your hands right now. No matter how much you scrub, there will still be some germs on your skin. It’s the same with food processing. The germs that food animals carry on and in their bodies and that come from birds, rodents and other animals in the fields where plants are grown can be reduced through cleanliness in the processing plant, but some bacteria will always remain. Irradiation is needed as a final step in processing ground beef, lettuce, spinach, cold cuts and hot dogs to protect our children against deadly germs that sometimes find their way into our food supply.

Natural, Organic and Small Producer Foods Aren't Safer!

Buying organic or naturally produced food does not protect you against E. coli or other germs in food. Buying beef from a small producer doesn’t either. A Minnesota study showed that people who bought their beef from local producers were at higher risk of getting sick from E. coli. Natural beef from Whole Foods caused an E. coli outbreak in the Northeast this past summer. Organic spinach was implicated in the national E. coli outbreak in 2006 that made nearly 300 people sick and killed three. Unpasteurized, natural apple juice was the source for an E. coli outbreak on the West Coast in 1996. Alfalfa sprouts have caused a number of E. coli outbreaks. 

Irradiation is Safe!

Food is irradiated by exposing it very briefly to an electron beam similar to that found in a television tube, x-rays or gamma rays from cobalt – just enough to kill   the germs. No radioactive materials are added to the food and it is not radioactive after processing. Just as you wouldn’t think twice about holding your crying daughter after she got an x-ray of her broken arm, you don’t have to worry about being exposed to radiation from irradiated food.

Some have raised concerns about the risk of cancer from chemicals found in food that has been irradiated. These compounds are found at extremely low levels and are very, very similar to compounds created during ordinary cooking of food. No increased risk of cancer has been found in animals fed irradiated food. Theoretical concerns about a miniscule risk of cancer many years in the future are far outweighed by the very real risk of your child getting seriously ill and dying today from E. coli or another foodborne disease.

Irradiated Food is Wholesome

Some are concerned that irradiation is being used to mask dirty or spoiled food or that irradiation reduces the nutritional value of food or changes the flavor. None of these are true. Food irradiation is used in addition to the sanitary practices that are already in place and mandated by state and federal regulators. Irradiation makes food last longer by killing fungus, mold and bacteria that cause food to spoil. Irradiated food doesn’t just appear fresher; it is fresher and will keep longer in your refrigerator. Nutritional analysis shows that changes in the nutritional value of food are insignificant and less than what would occur with normal cooking. While some professional food tasters have found a slight difference in flavor, most people (including me!) can’t tell the difference. Try it yourself! You can get irradiated hamburgers from Omaha Steaks and Schwann’s and irradiated ground beef at Wegman’s in the Northeast and Publix in the southeast.

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