Filed Under: Food Scares

Risks, Benefits, and Paranoia

This morning we were dusting off our bookshelf and came across a fascinating read on “kitchen science,” What Einstein Told His Cook. Its author, University of Pittsburgh professor emeritus Robert Wolke, wrote his last Food 101 column for the Washington Post two summers ago. For almost a decade, Wolke clued Post readers in on the science behind everything from champagne corks to jelly beans. Today, we found ourselves particularly drawn to Wolke’s debunking of an ongoing activist paranoia: food irradiation.   
Wolke takes on the fearmonger talking points one at a time starting on page 315:

“Food irradiation uses the equivalent of 1 billion chest X rays, which is enough radiation to kill a person 6,000 times over.”
How is that relevant, I ask? Food irradiation is used on foods, not on people. In a steel mill, the temperature of the molten steel is 3,000 degrees F, which is hot enough to vaporize a human body. Workers in steel mills and food irradiation facilities are therefore well advised not to bathe in vats of molten steel or take naps on the food irradiation conveyor belts.
“With each bite of irradiated food we receive indirect exposure to ionizing radiation.”
There is absolutely no radiation in the food, either direct or indirect, whatever that means. With each piece of steel we touch, do we receive “indirect exposure” to that 3,000 degree temperature?
“Ionizing radiation can kill beneficial microorganisms as well as dangerous ones.”
That’s true. So do canning and virtually all other food preservation methods. But so what? A serving of food without beneficial microorganisms is not harmful.

Seems perfectly reasonable, right? So… Is food irradiation safe, then? Wolke breaks the news:

Can anything be proven to be absolutely safe? Just read the finely printed “possible side effects” notice in every package of health-giving and lifesaving prescription drugs…
Life is a continual risk-benefit analysis; some degree of risk is the inevitable dark shadow of any technological advance… In the last decade of the twentieth, an average of more than two hundred people were electrocuted in the United States each year from household electrical devices…with another three hundred killed in some forty thousand electrical fires. We deplore and yet accept these consequences of having electricity in our homes because the benefits so vastly outweigh the risks.

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