Alex Binkley - Taking shine off organic foods


Taking the shine off organic foods

'Zapping food with low doses of radiation could save lives'

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

The death toll in the German E.-coli O104 outbreak has passed 35 and hopefully will end quickly. The culprit was organic bean sprouts from a German farm, not Spanish produce that German officials had been blaming for weeks.

As Canada learned in the deadly Listeria outbreak of 2008, food safety is a complicated business. Deli meat from Maple Leaf Foods, one of the leading practioners of food safety, left 22 people dead and scores more sickened.

Organic foods usually get a free ride from the public when it comes to food safety. Hopefully, this episode will teach consumers that fruits and veggies grown with or without chemical pesticides and fertilizers are no different when it comes to food safety. Both carry risks.

One hopes the German authorities didn’t hesitate to finger the sprouts just because they came from an organic farm.

While the admission about the source of the sprouts led officials to say consumers could be reassured about the safety of other European veggies, the E.coli incident should have Europeans questioning the systems the E.U. has in place to assure food safety.

A German state official said the incident was a case of bad luck because the farm followed all the regulations.

Thirty five die and it’s bad luck?

I’m sure all the people grieving the loss of loved ones or tending to people made sick by the sprouts get some closure from that.

The special inquiry on the Listeria outbreak by Sheila Weatherill produced 57 recommendations for improving food safety in Canada. They are supposed to be fully implemented this fall. The Harper government’s future plans for improving food safety remain unclear despite requests from the food industry for consultations on the issue.

The United States is giving its food safety system a complete overhaul. It would seem our European friends need a serious examination of their food safety systems as well.

It would also be useful to revive consideration of expanding the irradiation of food as the food industry has been trying to encourage for years. Limited irradiation is allowed in Canada but Health Canada has buried its consultation on expanding the process to other risky foods like ground beef rather than encourage an open discussion of the issue.

There’re concerns about the safety of the process that should be aired in public.

As experts have been saying repeatedly in recent days, irradiation involves sending gamma rays or electron beams into meat, poultry and produce. The process can deactivate up to 99.999% of E. coli, and was declared safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration almost 50 years ago. Even so, less than 10% of the global food supply is irradiated.

The main reason is opposition from activists who raise fears about loss of nutrition or possible health risks from undetectable change to food caused by irradiation.

Yet, as various commentators have noted, study after study has turned up no evidence that zapping food with low doses of radiation damages human health. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.N.'s Food and Agricultural Organization and World Health Organization have all endorsed the process as safe and highly effective.

These facts haven't discouraged the even more effective media campaigns of a few pressure groups that never met a food technology they didn't fear.

And if it had prevented the Europeans E.-coli deaths, it would be more than useful.

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