One reason Americans live so well is that they rapidly adopt new technologies to improve their lives. Consumers are presented with multitudes of technology choices and readily purchase what is best for their own needs. However, one modern technology that could provide significant consumer benefits languishes on the sidelines—irradiation of food to protect it against bacterial contamination.

The under-usage of irradiation is all the more ironic in light of current consumer concerns about food safety. Illnesses and deaths occur far too frequently from food-borne microbes, including the most lethal strain of E. coli that has made its presence known in ground meats and other foods. Irradiation reduces the risk. When foods are subjected to appropriate doses of ionizing radiation, populations of dangerous microbes are lowered below levels at which they pose significant threats. The foods become safer than before.

The irradiation process does not make the food itself radioactive or unsafe in any way. "The overwhelming scientific information provided through national and international agencies and organizations indicates that the irradiation of food is a safe process to use on consumer food products," says Dr. Edward C. Mather, a veterinary microbiologist and deputy director of the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center based at Michigan State University.

Irradiated foods are currently commercially available in 28 nations worldwide. You could well have eaten some yourself. Irradiated spices are used in some processed foods.

Sectors of our population consume significant amounts of irradiated foods. Astronauts’ food supplies are irradiated to prevent the calamity of food-borne illness on space missions. Some hospitals offer irradiated foods to the elderly and to patients with weakened immune systems to reduce their exposure to food pathogens that could prove fatal.

But even though the Food and Drug Administration has approved irradiated meats, little is offered for consumer sale. At the beginning of 1998, according to Food Technology magazine, only four retail stores in the U. S. regularly offered irradiated foods.

Fear of negative press is a powerful barrier. Supermarket chains have shied away because of the public-relations damage they could receive from media-savvy, anti-irradiation activists. A well-staged demonstration outside a supermarket for the evening news, featuring clever visuals and soundbites before the backdrop of the company’s logo, is the kind of headache major retailers prefer to avoid.

However, the risk posed by bacteria remains. Since potentially deadly microbes are so widespread in the environment, the logical response in a technologically sophisticated society is to use all available protective tools. Says Mather, "Analysis of health risks should be based on science rather than emotion and inaccurate information. This is especially true for food."

Some day, suggests Austin, Texas, attorney Mark R. Robeck, writing in Food Technology, food providers may experience liability problems not for irradiating their products but for not irradiating them. A plaintiff who gets sick may claim that irradiation would have eliminated the illness-causing pathogen and that therefore the food company was negligent in failing to irradiate.

Dr. Dean Cliver, professor of food safety at the University of California, Davis, believes that government agencies should require raw chicken and ground beef to be irradiated and that if they permit risky nonirradiated foods on the market, these should be labeled as "unnecessarily dangerous." He made his argument in Priorities, a publication of the American Council on Science and Health, in an article titled "Caution: Nonirradiated."

The process does not make foods sterile, however, so poor handling after irradiation, including by consumers, can cause microbe numbers to rapidly multiply to risky levels again. MSU meat scientist Dr. Al Booren says meats are especially prone to mishandling and cross-contamination, so consumer responsibility will always be an important link in the safety chain. Rigorous sanitation habits remain the ultimate defense against dangerous microbes, Booren emphasizes.

But reducing the population of those microbes before they reach the consumer level is also a wise action. It is done for astronauts and hospitalized people, so why not for the rest of us?

Mather says, "Application of irradiation technology has occurred with many food products domestically and internationally, and we should be able to expand its use."

Food irradiation is a food-safety issue that deserves wider scrutiny in an emotionally uncharged atmosphere. More broadly, it is also a consumer-choice issue. Government should neither ban nor mandate irradiation; individual consumers in the marketplace should decide if this and other technologies will bring benefits to their lives.