Food Safety and the Nuclear Option

The current food safety problem in Germany seems to be winding down, with no smoking gun or tangible evidence as to how the latest contaminant got into the food system. Another instance of a long list of food safety problems that makes me, for one, question the underpinnings of the entire distributed food production system. But it also reminds me of some experiments that were done in the US and probably elsewhere concerning the use of high radiation for food preservation.

Traditional means of food preservation range from drying through pickling to various kinds of heat treatments. The general objective is to make the food inhospitable to bacterial growth and possibly even kill off some of the natural contaminants. So if the end user consumes the food within the expected shelf life they should be ‘safe’. Irradiated food was another approach that was explored in the early days of the nuclear romance. Essentially, food is bombarded with intense radiation from a source that sterilizes the material without heating it. The foodstuffs were sealed in a radiation-transparent container that otherwise protected the food. After this treatment the food, even fresh meat, would stay usable at room temperature for very extended periods – even years.

Wikipeida has a fascinating article that summarizes the state of the science Food irradiation has been tested widely but has limited use for a wide variety of concerns over potential issues. But there has been little real research into the issues – most of the stuff I have seen on the web lapse into the same tired fearmongering of ‘what possibly could happen’ that makes it so hard to have any reasonable discussion about anything ‘nuclear’.

The problem seems to come down to this – we have evolved a food production system where societies rely on remote locations to produce their food. These remote locations may have processes, standards and controls that are different from the end recipient. And none of this food is subject to 100% sampling for quality control purposes – and using any less than 100% of the item risks missing localized contaminants that would now have the shipping process to spread to the remainder of the batch.

Now personally, I find the idea of the 10,000 mile salad insane – but we are used to it and will continue to crud up the planet while we ship our fresh greens around. To say nothing of the bulk boxes of frozen cow from Argentina to the hamburger palaces of North America. But it seems to me that folks need to seriously reconsider irradiating these long distance food shipments to reduce the potential for yet another food issue. Until my garden is fully up the store will be the source for my fresh produce – but I have a lot more confidence in the food produced by the local greenhouse down the road than a faceless grower on the other side of the continent. Besides, if there is an issue I want to know where it came from and possibly who produced it. All this industrial food production is nothing if not anonymous. It is about time to get serious about protecting the public – and if that has a tri-foil attached we will just have to learn how to manage it.


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