Efforts to zap bacteria in food are slow to catch hold

The nuclear energy that Frank Benso uses to kill bacteria in fruit and oysters has won widespread support from public health officials and scientists, who say it could turn the tide against the plague of foodborne illness.

0408_bananafood_mainThe Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of radiation to wipe out pathogens in dozens of food products, and for decades it has been used in other developed countries without reports of human harm.

But it has barely caught on in the United States. The technology — called irradiation — zaps bacteria out of food and is highly effective, but for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life forms and phosphorescent food.

Benso, who opened Gateway America 18 months ago, also knows his new venture pits him against the nation’s growing buy-local, back-to-nature movement that shuns industrial food processing.

“Those naysayers better throw out their microwaves, because that is irradiation,” Benso said, standing in his 50,000-square-foot irradiation facility.

Dozens of scientific studies have shown that irradiated food is safe for human consumption, and that no radioactive material has leaked outside any U.S. plant, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The three forms of energy that can be used — gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays — can virtually eliminate bacteria in minutes. All this has prompted the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and dozens of other groups to endorse its use.

Michael T. Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames an “anti-science movement” for the public resistance. He is frustrated with the federal government for endorsing irradiation but then not educating the public as it has with childhood immunizations and water fluoridation.