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food irradiation and the organic food movement

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Oh,rats - they've exposed the conspiracy!

Oh,rats – they’ve exposed the conspiracy!

Food irradiation is a well-known process for preserving food and eliminating or reducing bacteria. It’s used for much the same purpose that pressure cooking of tinned food is used, or the pasteurization of milk. All food used by NASA astronauts in space is irradiated, to reduce the possibility of food-borne illness.

advantages and disadvantages of irradiation

According to the US Department of Health’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), irradiation, if applied correctly, has been clearly shown to reduce or eliminate food pathogens, without reducing the nutritional value of the food. It should be noted that irradiation doesn’t make food radioactive. I’ll look at the science of irradiation shortly.

Of course it’s not a cure-all. For example, it doesn’t halt the ageing process, and can make older fruit look fresher than it is. The reduction in nutritional value of the food, caused by the ageing process, can be masked by irradiation. It can also kill off bacteria that produce an odour that alerts you that the food is going off. Also, it doesn’t get rid of neurotoxins like those produced by Clostridium botulinum. Irradiation will kill off the bacteria, but not the toxins produced by the bacteria prior to irradiation.

how does food irradiation work?

Three different types of irradiation technology are used, using gamma rays (cobalt-60), electron beams and x-rays. The idea is the same with each, the use of ionising radiation to break chemical bonds in molecules within bacteria and other microbes, leading to their death or greatly inhibiting their growth. The amount of ionising radiation is carefully measured, and the radiation takes place in a special room or chamber for a specified duration.

When radioactive cobalt 60 is the energy source, it’s contained in two stainless steel tubes, one inside the other, called ‘source pencils’. They’re kept on a rack in an underground water chamber, and raised out of the water when required. The water isn’t radioactive. Food products move along a conveyor belt into a room where they’re exposed to the rack containing the source pencils. Gamma rays (photons) pass through the tubes and treat the food. The cobalt 60 process is generally used in the USA.

An Electron-beam Linear Accelerator generates, concentrates and accelerates electrons to up to 99% of light-speed.These electron beams are scanned over the product. The machine uses energy levels of 5, 7.5 or 10 MeV (million electron volts). Again the product is usually guided under the beam by a conveyor system at a predetermined speed to obtain the appropriate dosage. This will clearly vary with product type and thickness.

The X-ray process starts with an electron beam accelerator targeting electrons on a metal plate. The energy that isn’t absorbed is converted into x-rays, which, like gamma rays, can penetrate food containers more than 40cms thick. Shipping containers, for example.

Most of the radiation used in these processes passes through the food without being absorbed. It’s the absorbed radiation, of course, that has the effect, destroying microbes and so extending shelf life, and slowing down the ripening of fruits and vegetables. The potential is there for food irradiation to replace chemical fumigants and fungicides used after harvest. It also has the potential, through the use of higher doses, to kill contaminating bacteria in meat, such as Salmonella.

Food irradiation is a cold treatment. It doesn’t significantly raise the temperature of the food, and this minimises nutrient loss or changes in texture, colour and flavour. The energy it uses is too low to cause food to become radioactive. It has been compared to light passing through a window. Food irradiation uses the same principle as pasteurization, and can be described as pasteurization by energy instead of heat, or cold pasteurization..

the use of food irradiation in Australia

Due largely to fears about irradiation having to do with radioactivity and nuclear energy, the process isn’t used as widely in Australia (or indeed the USA) as it could be. Irradiation is used in some 50 countries, but the level of usage varies for each country, from very limited in Austria and other EU countries, to a very widespread usage in Brazil. Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) summarises our situation thus:

In Australia and New Zealand, only herbs and spices, herbal infusions, tomatoes, capsicums and some tropical fruits can be irradiated.

FSANZ has established that there is a technological need to irradiate these foods, and that there are no safety concerns or significant loss of nutrients when irradiating these foods.

Irradiated food or ingredients must be labelled clearly as having been treated by ionising radiation.

food irradiation, health and safety

Since 1950 hundreds of studies have been carried out on animals fed with irradiated products, including multi-generational studies. On the basis of these studies, food irradiation has been approved by the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, the Scientific Committee of the European Union and many other national and international monitoring bodies. Of course this hasn’t stopped many individuals and organisations from complaining and campaigning against the practice. Concerns include: chemical changes harmful to the consumer; impairment of flavour; the destruction of more ‘good’ than ‘bad’ bacteria; and that it’s an unnecessary process which runs counter to the movement towards regional product, seasonality and real freshness. I’ve already mentioned other problems, such as that it can mask spoiled food, and that it doesn’t destroy toxins already released by bacteria.

opposition from the organic food movement

Food products  must be irradiation-free if they are to certified as ‘organic’, in Australia and elsewhere. Now, I’ve fairly regularly expressed irritation with the ‘organic’ food ideology, most particularly in this post, but I recognise that it appeals to a very diverse set of people, with perhaps a majority simply believing, on faith, that ‘organic’ food will be more nutritious, safer and better for the environment than conventional food. Most of those people wouldn’t know much about food irradiation, but hey, it sounds dodgy, so why not avoid it? I’ve no great argument to make with such people, apart from the old ‘knowledge is power’ arguments, but there are a few individuals and organisations trying to get food irradiation banned, based on what they claim to be evidence. Unsurprisingly, most of these critics are also ‘organic’ food proponents. I’ll look at some criticisms from Eden Organic Foods, a US outfit, which admittedly represents the extreme end of the spectrum (nature before the fall?).

Firstly, in their ‘factsheet’ on irradiation, linked to above (and reprinted verbatim here by another alarmist organisation, the Center for Food Safety), they waste no time in informing us that the beams used are ‘millions of times more powerful than standard medical x-rays’. This sounds pretty scary, but it’s a bogus comparison. Irradiation is designed to kill bugs and bacteria, whereas medical x-rays are for making visible what is invisible to the naked eye. Clearly, the first and foremost concern in testing and studying the technology is to make sure that the chemical changes it induces are safe for humans. Comparisons with medical x-rays are more than irrelevant to this concern, as the author of this factsheet well knows.

Next comes this disturbing claim:

Radiation can do strange things to food, by creating substances called “unique radiolytic products.” These irradiation byproducts include a variety of mutagens – substances that can cause gene mutations, polyploidy (an abnormal condition in which cells contain more than two sets of chromosomes), chromosome aberrations (often associated with cancerous cells), and dominant lethal mutations (a change in a cell that prevents it from reproducing) in human cells. Making matters worse, many mutagens are also carcinogens

Wow. So much for the poor people of Brazil – they’re obviously done for. But how is it that the world’s top scientific agencies missed all these mutagens and carcinogens? Let’s take a closer look.

The term ‘radiolytic products’ simply means the products created by chemical changes that occur when food is irradiated. Similarly, the products created by heat treatment, or simply cooking, might be called ‘thermolytic products’. These are not ‘strange’, they’re quite predictable, for irradiation would be totally ineffective if it didn’t bring about some chemical changes. One of the differences is that radiolytic products are generally undetectable and produce only minor changes in the food compared to the major operation we call cooking. It is, of course, precisely these products that the scientific community scrutinises when determining the safety of irradiated foods.

Interestingly, in an article, dating back to 1999, called ‘Scientific answers to irradiation bugaboos’, for 21st Century Science & Technology magazine, Marjorie Mazel Hecht has this to say:

The July 1986 report of the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), which reviewed all the research work on food irradiation, defined unique radiolytic products “as compounds that are formed by treating foods with ionizing energy, but are not found normally in any untreated foods and are not formed by other accepted methods of food processing.”

The report states that “on the basis of this definition no unique radiolytic compounds have been found in 30 years of research. Compounds produced in specific foods by ionizing energy have always been found in the same foods when processed by other accepted methods or in other foods” (Vol. 1, p. 15).

This slightly contradicts the factsheet put out by Idaho University’s Radiation Information Network, which acknowledges the existence of such products while insisting on their nugatory nature:

Scientists find the changes in food created by irradiation minor to those created by cooking. The products created by cooking are so significant that consumers can smell and taste them, whereas only a chemist with extremely sensitive lab equipment may be able to detect radiolytic products.

Needless to say, alarmists thrive on these contradictions. So what evidence is there of mutagenic irradiation byproducts? Well, there are radiolytic byproducts of fatty acids in meat, called alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs), first detected a few decades ago, and the research done on them seems to be so far inconclusive. A book entitled Food Irradiation Research and Technologythe second edition of which was published last year, states that ‘knowledge about the toxicological properties of 2-ACBs is still scarce’, and that ‘it may be prudent to collect more knowledge on the toxicological and metabolic properties of 2-ACBs in order to quantify a possible risk – albeit minimal.’ The book describes a number of studies on rats and humans, going into more detail than I can comprehend, but the results have been difficult to interpret and generally not easily replicable in other studies, indicating very minute and hard-to-measure effects. No doubt such studies will be ongoing. As far as I know, 2-ACBs are the only products about which there is any concern.

What is obvious though, in looking at the research material available online, is the difference between the caution, skepticism and uncertainty of researchers compared to the adamantine certainty of such critics as the Center for Food Safety.

But what about polyploidy? Polyploid cells contain more than two paired sets of chromosomes. Eukaryotic cells, those of multicellular creatures, are diploid (two sets), and prokaryotic, bacterial cells are haploid (one set). Polyploidy is regarded as a chromosomal aberration, common in many plants and some invertebrates, but relatively rare in humans. However it is present in humans, and the percentage varies from individual to individual, and within individuals from day to day and week to week, depending on a range of factors including diet, age, and even circadian rhythms. Levels of up to 3-4% in human lymphocytes have been found in healthy individuals, though some researchers have claimed much higher percentages, in liver cells. The overall finding so far is that fluctuations in polyploidy are the norm, and no clear correlation has been found so far between these fluctuations and health profiles. It seems that the biological significance of polyploidy isn’t known.

Critics of irradiation have been going on about polyploidy and other mutations supposedly caused by irradiation for decades, and unsurprisingly, some are fanatically obsessed with the issue, accompanying their rants with long reference lists, mostly from like-minded activists. However, the text Safety of irradiated foods, 2nd edition discusses polyploidy in some detail, with particular reference to a study of malnourished Indian children fed irradiated wheat, a study regularly cited by anti-irradiation activists. It turns out that there were many problems with the study. First, not enough cells were counted to validly pinpoint an effect, such as a change in diet. Secondly, polyploidy is notoriously difficult to detect – superimposed diploid cells can be easily mistaken for polyploid cells under a microscope (in fact when two independent observers looked at the same microscope slides, one found 34 polyploid cells, the other found 9). Further, the study only gave group results rather than individual results, so it wasn’t possible to know whether the polyploidy was restricted to one or two individuals rather than spread over the group. Another problem was that the reference or control group was found to have no polyploidy at all, a very strange finding given that other researchers always found some degree of polyploidy in their subjects, regardless of irradiation or other effects. In fact, the study was so poorly written up that it’s impossible to replicate – for example the exact diet given the children wasn’t described. How was the wheat fed to the children?. Presumably it was prepared in some way, but how? The omission is crucial. The study also didn’t take into account the effect of malnutrition itself on chromosomal abnormalities. And so on.

You get the picture, and it’s the same with other claims about mutations and carcinogens. Every time you look into the claims you find the same problems that no doubt other scientific watchdog organisations have found – poorly conducted studies that either can’t be replicated or haven’t survived replication. That, of course is no reason for complacency, and at least the activists can assist, in their sometimes muddle-headed ways, in improving our knowledge of 2-ACBs, polyploidy and other biological effects, just as the creationists who bang on about a lack of transitional forms, or ‘irreducible complexity’, help us to focus on refutations, clarifications and further evidence.

Finally, food irradiation, while clearly not the zappo-horrorshow that activists are determined to make it, doesn’t replace proper handling techniques and a good instinct about food quality. The fact is, though, that it does increase shelf life, and is a useful tool in our increasingly global economy, where food is shipped from here to there and everywhere, in season and out. If you prefer to eat locally, with fresh and seasonal produce, fine, and we can argue about the sustainability of that approach on a worldwide scale, but let’s none of us pretend that food irradiation is other than what it is. Let the evidence, properly evaluated, be your guide.

Written by stewart henderson

January 14, 2014 at 12:09 pm

‘organic’ food – the greatest scam in the west

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foison or poison?


[there is a] fashion to talk as if art were something different from nature, so that things artificial should be separated from things natural, as differing totally in kind… Things artificial differ from things natural not in form or essence, but only in the efficient.

Francis Bacon, De Augmentis Scientiarum, 1623

Someone at work offers me some food, from a cooking class she teaches. She describes it as very healthful, ‘and organic too’, she proudly confides. ‘Well of course, it’s organic, it’s food,’ I mildly reply. ‘Well, yes, but you know what I mean,’ she says.

Unfortunately, I did know what she meant. She meant ‘organic’ in the cheap, shallow, duplicitous, marketing way, not in the deep, scientific way.

And so I begin a piece that is long overdue, and which, I’m sure, will not win me any friends, assuming anybody reads it at all.

‘Organic’ food has been getting my goat for a few years now, and it’s time I laid out my objections based on the evidence I’ve accumulated over the years, while at the same time looking again at the evidence, just in case there’s something redeeming about this labelling and marketing practice that I’ve missed.

First, though, I’ll talk about marketing, which is the real focus of my ire. The term ‘organic food’, as so many people have pointed out, is tautologous. All food is organic, that is an unarguable, scientific fact. So it takes a deal of hubris, and, I reluctantly admit, a deal of marketing genius, to be able to sell a product and a process intended, quite deliberately, to cast doubt on the health and nutritional value of 99.999% of the food we eat. This is the scam of all scams, and what’s more, it has been entirely successful. Usually when we think of scams, we think of those who got caught – the Bernie Madoffs and Jeff Skillings of the world, the bad and the blameworthy who make us feel better for not being like them. Their scams are over, lessons learnt, systems tightened, vigilance heightened, but there’s no end in sight for the organic food scam. It’ll be with us for as long as the words ‘toxic chemicals’ have currency, and that’ll be around the twelfth of forever. What’s more, there’s no ‘body’ to blame, no obvious perpetrator or mastermind. In that way, and in more than a few others, it’s a bit like religion. 

I note that most people I know who swear by ‘organic’ food are also opposed to GMOs, suspicious of mainstream medicine, and dabblers in various pseudo-scientific approaches to health and well-being. They certainly place more value in ‘the fruits of the earth’ than the products of the lab. This article of faith has been labelled ‘the naturalistic fallacy’ by sceptics, though philosophers might quibble about that – as would I, having struggled over many years with that particular concept, introduced by philosopher George Moore more than a century ago. Probably better to label this way of thinking as ‘the appeal to nature’. In any case, it’s certainly an example of fallacious reasoning, as the insightful Francis Bacon was one of the first to point out.

My many qualms about the ‘organic’ food movement have been reinforced by a listen to the ever-reliable Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid piece on the subject, and I’ll use that as the basis, or at least the starting point, for this post. In fact, you might well be better off listening to Dunning’s analysis, which will doubtless be more comprehensive and concise than mine. I’m mainly writing this to get the information and the understanding of the issues more clearly lodged in my head.

The generally understood scientific term for an organic compound is one that’s produced by living entities. Chemically, it’s a carbon-based molecule with a carbon-hydrogen bond. Coal is an organic compound, and so, interestingly, is plastic. If the term ‘organic’ is used in any other way, you should be sceptical.  My scepticism compels me to use the term ‘organic’ food, with scare quotes, to highlight this dubious use.

In order to be certified ‘organic’, food and agricultural products must be produced under a set of guidelines which vary from country to country, and which are regulated in different ways in different places. This Wikipedia article provides some of the guidelines common to most western countries:

  • no human sewage sludge fertilizer used in cultivation of plants or feed of animals[1]
  • avoidance of synthetic chemical inputs not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances (e.g. fertilizer, pesticides, antibiotics, food additives, etc.), genetically modified organisms, irradiation, and the use of sewage sludge;
  • use of farmland that has been free from prohibited synthetic chemicals for a number of years (often, three or more);
  • keeping detailed written production and sales records (audit trail);
  • maintaining strict physical separation of organic products from non-certified products;
  • undergoing periodic on-site inspections.

So let’s look at the first three of these, which, presumably, are key to producing goods superior to, or healthier (and tastier) than goods that don’t earn the ‘organic’ label.

The issue of sludge fertiliser and its potential dangers isn’t really an ‘organic’ food issue, it’s one for any agricultural product. If you use sludge fertiliser, and it causes contamination to humans or animals, obviously there will be consequences for your business and yourself, whether you’re trying to produce ‘organic’ food or not. The ‘freedom from sewage sludge’ label that ‘organic’ foods are presumably entitled to display appears to be meaningless unless non-‘organic’ producers are all using the stuff. And even if they were, the issue is one of contaminants, not sewage sludge per se. I don’t know if this is an issue in Australia, but there is no evidence, out of the USA, that anyone is being contaminated by non-‘organic’ foods. No matter what the complexities of applying sludge in farming – organic or inorganic, treatment methods, etc – it is irrelevant to the ‘organic’ food issue. It appears to be used for ideological reasons, to hint that, somehow, somewhere, the use of untreated or improperly treated sludge is slowly killing us.

The second guideline, which for some reason incorporates the first guideline, rendering that guideline superfluous, is the key guideline to understanding the psychology of ‘organic’ food, and the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy upon which it’s based. ‘Organic’ food producers must not use ‘synthetic’ fertilisers or pesticides ‘not on the National List of Allowed and Prohibited Substances’, in other words nothing synthetic of any kind.

‘Organic’ producers and marketers like to promote their products as fertilizer and pesticide free. This is complete bullshit. Virtually all agricultural products are subject to pest infestation and this needs to be dealt with, one way or another. Methods also need to be employed to enrich the soil, to render it more fertile. The only difference between ‘organic’ producers and the rest is that ‘organic’ producers are constrained by their anti-science ideology. Synthetic fertilizer, for example, involves the production of the key nutrients for plant growth – nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus – on a commercial scale. ‘Organic’ farming involves the same nutrients, but delivered the hard way, through fish and bone meal, earthworm castings and the like. The only difference is that these materials are more costly and less efficient, as they deliver a much lesser and more variable load of the nutrient per volume, and are thus less straightforward to use accurately and systematically, and are far costlier to transport. The use of synthetic fertilisers, as I’ve pointed out many times, has, with the improvement through hybridisation of particular grains and fruits, increased crop yields by ten times and more, and has saved the lives of millions since their introduction in the sixties.

But the real point here is the duplicity of labelling synthetic fertilizer, which is able to isolate and concentrate the required nutrients in the most efficient way, as ‘chemical’ (with the implication that it just might be toxic), as if the fertilizers used in ‘organic’ farming are somehow free from chemistry.

The third guideline mentioned above really shows how committed the ‘organic’ marketers are to scaring people about conventional farming. There is no need to keep conventional farmland free from ‘prohibited synthetical chemicals’ in order to use it for ‘organic’ farming. I wonder what is meant by ‘prohibited’ here? If they’re prohibited by government authorities, then of course you shouldn’t use the land – but then why would any farmer use such substances, thus poisoning her own produce? If they’re prohibited solely by ‘organic’ regulations, then they’re simply ideologically driven, arbitrary, and a product of the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy.

As Dunning points out, ‘organic’ products are perfectly healthy and safe, but there’s no reason to believe they’re healthier and safer than non-‘organic’ products. I personally prefer to avoid eating too many processed food products because I think it’s better for our bodies to expend energy on the process of digestion, and because many processed foods have added sugar which our bodies don’t need and which can cause problems. I think there’s a fair amount of good scientific evidence for this approach to diet. I’ve not as yet encountered any scientific evidence for the benefits of ‘organic’ foods, except that they’re generally unprocessed and vegetarian, which is mostly good (don’t forget, though that a diet of potato chips is also vegetarian).

A perhaps more subtle, and superficially more cogent argument for ‘organic’ foods is the environmental argument. Okay, so conventional food isn’t poisoning us or giving us cancer or heart disease, but you gotta admit that it’s unsustainable. ‘Organic’ food really cares for the soil, it’s based on a deep connection with nature, a respect for the land, it gives as good as it takes, it’s about long-term sustainability. Conventional farming is, by contrast, instrumentalist, exploitative, impersonal, short-term, destructive etc etc.

This is a simplistic and ideological claim, not evidence-based. Firstly, let’s look at how conventional farming obtains its three key nutrients for enriching the soil. Nitrogen is, of course, freely available from the atmosphere and infinitely sustainable. Phosphorus is mined from phosphate rock, of which we have reserves to last centuries. Potassium comes from ancient ocean deposits, of which we have millenia of reserves. Of course these reserves are finite, so seawater extraction is considered a viable alternative, for both potassium and phosphorus. As Dunning points out, this creates a sustainable cycle as plant matter and farm runoff returns to the oceans, but ‘organic’ certification, at least in the US, doesn’t allow sustainable atmospheric and seawater extraction. ‘Organic’ chemical fertiliser can only be sourced from animal waste and other recycled resources, using criteria which are ideological rather than scientific, and so more or less arbitrary. Further, these resources can’t be marshalled in sufficiently commercial quantities to feed large populations, especially in developing countries where there just isn’t the infrastructure to make fertilisation under ‘organic’ guidelines viable on a commercial scale. ‘Organic’ farming is a distinctly western, middle class ideology.

It’s also insulting to conventional farmers to suggest that they’re more exploitative and short-term in their use of their own land. This goes as much for multinational agricultural concerns as for individual farmers. Both groups are interested in long-term viability, for obvious reasons. Crop rotation and other forms of long-term soil management have long been practised by conventional farmers, who must naturally balance these with other production concerns. This is surely grist for the mill for all agriculturalists, as they would wish to reduce the cost of applying fertiliser or herbicides wherever possible.

Returning to the pesticide/herbicide issue, it’s often harder, and more expensive, for ‘organic’ farmers to find ‘natural’ or plant-based chemicals to use instead of synthetic products, and these costs must needs be passed on to consumers. The synthetic products have, of course, been passing health and safety checks for decades. One such chemical, rotenone, a colourless, odourless ketone found in the seeds and stems of a number of plants including the jicama vine, has in recent years been all but abandoned, due to connections found between its use and the incidence of Parkinson’s Disease among farm workers.

I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture. I’ll end, as I began, with the use of language. There are plenty of organic entities, to use the word in its right way, that are poisonous to humans – be they berries or bugs, frogs or sea creatures. A fine example is the fugu fish, with its deadly poison, tetrododoxin, of which quantities are found in the skin, the skeleton, the intestines, the ovaries, and above all the liver. Eaten usually as sashimi (ie raw), it must be prepared by rigorously trained chefs, and even then you can never be sure – which seems to be essential to its charm as a delicacy. To quote from this travel advisor:

Tetrododoxin does not cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victims remain fully conscious while their central nervous system gradually shuts down, first producing dizziness and incoherent speech, then paralysing the muscles. This can lead to asphyxia, and possibly death. (There is no antidote for fugu poisoning).

Here’s one example, among many others, in which awareness of the ‘appeal to nature’ fallacy can be more than a bit useful. Bon appetit.

Written by stewart henderson

July 29, 2013 at 1:36 pm