Consumer backlash over irradiated food

Related tags Food irradiation

Having reported the announcement that the Publix supermarket chain
is stocking irradiated meat and poultry in the US, today we report
on the consumer backlash the move has ignited there.

US supermarket chain Publix is facing a consumer backlash following its move to start stocking irradiated meats and poultry, according to a report in the US newspaper Orlando Sentinel​.

Publix spokesman Lee Brunson said the Lakeland-based chain's New Generation brand of irradiated frozen ground beef, boneless chicken breasts and chicken tenders would give consumers more choice and "another line of defence" against contamination.

But irradiation opponents immediately declared war.

"We will be exerting pressure on Publix in Florida and nationwide,"​ said Michael Colby, executive director of Food and Water, a Montpelier, Vermont, environment and food-safety lobbying organisation.

Colby vowed to mobilise the group's 125,000 grass-roots supporters nationwide. "We will be in front of as many [Publix outlets] as we can,"​ he said.

During the past 40 years, the FDA has gradually increased the number of foods - including beef, pork, poultry and fresh fruit and vegetables - that can be irradiated, which kills harmful bacteria.

In Europe, on the other hand, lobby groups have had much more of an influence on the outcome of irradiated foods. Currently the EU only allows one category of foods to be irradiated, dried herbs and vegetable stock. The situation does vary from country to country, with France having the most liberal laws, but in the UK the influence of powerful lobby groups means that no retailer currently stocks any irradiated foods.

But many grocers and restaurants, faced with critics' claims that irradiation can cause cancer, have been reluctant to sell the treated food. Others have been selling it without fanfare to avoid protests.

Publix, which has 711 stores in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama, is not be the first grocer in this state to sell irradiated meat.

Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie Stores disclosed on Wednesday that it has quietly been selling irradiated frozen beef patties for about a year in its more than 1,070 stores in 12 states.

Winn-Dixie spokesman Mickey Clerc said the company never announced that it was introducing irradiated items, although the Huskien brand product is labelled with a federally required irradiation symbol and a statement that the food was treated.

"It's not a big item"​ in terms of sales, Clerc said, "but it gives consumers a choice.",​ People who want to cook hamburgers rare, he said, can do so with irradiated beef with less concern about salmonella or other contamination.

Clerc said he could not say whether Winn-Dixie might add irradiated chicken or fresh products to the mix in the future.

"It all depends on consumer demand, "​ he said.

A number of other small regional supermarket chains, such as Wegman's Food Markets in New York, also recently began selling irradiated beef products.

Publix said it will consider selling irradiated fresh food in the future, a move that could make the chain even more vulnerable to protests.

Most mainstream health professionals support irradiation as safe and effective - and a way to blunt an alarming rise in foodborne illnesses and deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement on irradiation that "an overwhelming body of scientific evidence demonstrates that irradiation does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make the food unsafe to eat. Just as for the pasteurisation of milk, it will be most effective when irradiation is coupled to careful sanitation programmes."

The Publix products will be treated at the Food Technology Service plant near Lakeland, a small company that has been irradiating poultry, fruit and vegetables since 1992 despite sporadic protests from various groups such as Food and Water.

Richard Hunter, president of Food Technology, which has successfully fought off protests in the past but is still struggling for profitability, said irradiation has proved safe during decades of use and is gaining acceptance from supermarkets and consumers.

"This is very large,"​ Hunter said of Publix's decision to sell three frozenirradiated products. "I'm thrilled from a business standpoint, but as a public health professional, I'm thrilled with the benefits this will mean for public health."

While there are a number of ways companies decontaminate food and packages with radiation, Food Technology Service uses radioactive cobalt-60, which produces gamma rays that pass through the food without leaving any trace.

Another food irradiation company, SureBeam of San Diego, exposes food to ionising radiation from electrons, or X-rays.

Irradiated food could be a good idea for the elderly, children, pregnant women and people who have weakened immune systems that make them particularly susceptible to contamination, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"It could help, in the short run, to eliminate outbreaks that are so tragic," DeWaal said.

But Colby of Food and Water disagreed.

"Irradiation will cause more problems than it solves," including creating cancer-causing agents in food, he said. "Consumers are looking for healthy, sustainable foods, and irradiation is the wrong way to go."

Related topics Food Safety & Quality

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