Now that Congress has given the nation’s school lunch programs the go-ahead to use irradiated beef, Weese hopes parents and the public in general will be as receptive to the technology.
"School officials are extremely concerned about outbreaks of food-borne illnesses," said Weese, an Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station research scientist and associate professor of nutrition and food science at Auburn University. "Irradiation will give them an extra margin of safety against that."
Approval for irradiated ground meat in schools was included in the federal farm bill that lawmakers passed in May. Removal of the ban prompted various consumer activist groups to reiterate their strong opposition to irradiated foods. But Weese said opponents’ primary objections to irradiation — that it destroys essential vitamins and minerals in food and that it increases the presence of cancer-causing chemicals — are not borne out by the research.
"The contention that irradiation impacts the nutritional value of foods is based on data from studies that were conducted 50 or 60 years ago," Weese said. "Our research indicates that even at the highest levels allowed by the Food and Drug Administration, irradiation has no more impact on nutritional value than heat pasteurization or freezing or grilling or frying or any other method of processing."
All legitimate research debunks the cancer link as well, Weese said.
Irradiation is a process that rids food of dangerous bacteria, including E. coli and salmonella, by exposing it to low levels of gamma rays or electrons. Based on their review of research conducted by Weese and other scientists, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association both have deemed irradiation safe.
Although the farm bill provision would allow schools to purchase irradiated ground meat by the end of the year, state school officials said they are uncertain when Alabama schoolchildren will begin to benefit from that change.
"Education, availability, price and acceptability are all critical issues as we move forward with irradiation and a greater degree of food safety," said Donny Cooper, a child nutrition specialist with the Alabama Department of Education. "We will make certain that the public understands and supports irradiation before we begin serving irradiated foods to our schoolchildren."
Weese’s extensive research on irradiation has extended into the realm of consumer acceptance, specifically regarding irradiated strawberries.
"We put 50 quarts of the strawberries in Alabama supermarkets, labeled with a seal that said, ‘Alabama-grown. Irradiated for your safety,’ " Weese said. "They sold in two hours. Our research shows consumers are open to foods that have been irradiated, especially from the standpoint of the added safety that irradiation ensures."
She draws a strong parallel between irradiation today and heat pasteurization of milk more than a century ago.
"Today, we would refuse to drink milk that wasn’t pasteurized, but when the technology was first introduced, people were afraid of pasteurization," she said. "They thought it was evil and that it was going to kill them and their young children. It took time for them to see the tremendous safety benefits that pasteurization provided."
Weese’s current irradiation research is focusing on fresh fruits and vegetables. Findings thus far indicate that bacteria on the surface of fresh produce, if not destroyed, are absorbed into these foods systemically, and that chemical washes are ineffective in killing all bacteria.
"The only thing we have found so far that destroys all the bacteria in and on these products is irradiation," Weese said.