In the Maine Sunday Telegram issue of Dec. 12, staff writer Lloyd Ferriss describes a nightmare in which he finds out that stores are selling irradiated foods in Maine. My nightmare is different. In my nightmare, I wake up to find that one of my grandchildren has died of an E. Coli infection, an infection that could have been prevented if his or her mother had been able to buy irradiated meat in the state of Maine.
I hope there will be an effort to overturn that idiotic law that bans the sale of irradiated foods in Maine. The trouble is, a small group of lobbyists, led by Food and Water Inc., doesn’t want any of us to have the right to buy irradiated foods, even if we’re convinced that they taste better, are more wholesome and are far safer than non-irradiated foods. I’m afraid Ferriss has fallen for their propaganda, for propaganda it is, and propaganda of the worst kind, full of untruths, half truths, innuendo and scare words.
For example, Ferriss says, “Irradiated food contains byproducts of the irradiation process, including formaldehyde.” Of course it does. So does non-irradiated food. The fact is the FDA would love to find any product in irradiated food that doesn’t also occur in non-irradiated food. Then they could test foods that are sold as having been irradiated so they could be sure some unscrupulous food processor isn’t trying to sell non-irradiated food as irradiated. They even coined an acronym for such a chemical, URP, which stands for Unique Radiolytic Product. Radiolytic means caused by radiation. They’ve been searching intently for 40 years to find a unique radiolytic product, and they can’t find any. There is simply nothing in irradiated food that isn’t also found in non-irradiated food.
When Ferriss says a better, safer way (to avoid food contamination problems) “is to raise sanitation standards in slaughter houses, food processing plants and restaurants,” he ignores the fact that it is impossible to sterilize meat except by cooking it to the point it almost turns to charcoal. Irradiation will kill something like 99.5 to 99.99 percent of the contaminants in meat, but not all. Your body can handle the rest.
Later on, Ferriss says, “Unstable molecules, created by the breakdown of chemical bonds in food, react with other molecules to form new substances.” You’re talking about free radicals, aren’t you, Mr. Ferriss? I wonder why the lobbyists have quit using the term “free radicals”? I’ll bet it’s because now that the public is beginning to understand what free radicals are, they are not scare words anymore. Free radicals occur when a chemical bond in a molecule is broken apart, creating two unstable pieces of the molecule, called radicals. The radicals are unstable because they have a strong electrical charge that leaves the radicals free to react with other molecules. In water solutions, such as the intracellular, and extracellular fluid of the muscle tissue that is meat, the free radicals usually react with each other.
Free radicals can be created by gamma rays. They can also be created by browning food. Toast is notorious for the free radicals created in the toasting process. They don’t cause any trouble because as soon as they hit the water in a drop of saliva they react with each other and, poof, they’re gone. Every piece of food blackened on the barbecue is loaded with free radicals.
Let me show you how careless Ferriss or his informants are with the truth. He writes, “I have less than complete trust of the FDA because of its well-publicized past mistakes. It was the FDA that approved thalidomide, …” But that’s not true. The only place in the world you couldn’t buy thalidomide was in the United States, because the FDA never did approve it. That was the FDA’s shining hour. Because it felt thalidomide had not been proven to be safe, it held up its approval pending further study. Then the thalidomide tragedy broke in Europe and that was the end of that.
What bothers me most about this whole irradiation issue is the way Ferriss and his friends are trying to force their, to my mind, misguided views down my throat. I think it’s obvious we disagree diametrically on the value of irradiating food. Fine. If he chooses to take his chances and feed his family non-irradiated food, that’s his prerogative. I’d like the same prerogative. Since I am convinced that irradiated food is far safer, I’d like to be able to buy it for my family here.
And don’t buy into his fear that he won’t be able to get non-irradiated food. The only way irradiated food will push it off the market shelves will be if it is so clearly superior almost everybody prefers it. That’s what happened with pasteurized milk.
Robert A. Graves, M.D. is a retired physician who lives in Orono. His column appears biweekly.