Lewis Wolpert: 'Doctors could play an important role in food irradiation' - Science - News - The Independent

Lewis Wolpert: 'Doctors could play an important role in food irradiation'

Certain words from science have a negative effect. "Clone" is a good example. But worse is "radiation", which is associated with all sorts of evils, particularly nuclear power.

Certain words from science have a negative effect. "Clone" is a good example. But worse is "radiation", which is associated with all sorts of evils, particularly nuclear power. This may account for the neglect of using irradiation to reduce food poisoning.

In the United States, it is estimated that there are 76 million cases of food-borne disease every year, leading to thousands of people needing hospital treatment and some 5,000 deaths.

Each year, it is estimated that up to 5.5 million people in the UK may suffer from food-borne illnesses - that's one in 10 people. Food-borne bugs in meat and poultry are major causes. Yet the irradiation of food has the potential to reduce dramatically the dangers of food poisoning.

Food irradiation is basically the same as pasteurisation of milk by heat, which can destroy nasty micro-organisms without affecting the nature of the milk. Yet there is resistance to food irradiation. Few people are aware that radiation is used to sterilise many of the products used in their homes. These include baby-bottle nipples, cosmetics and bandages.

Research on methods to control food-borne bacteria go back a long way. In 1904, there was an article in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society showing that radiation from radium inactivated Staphylococcus (a parasitic bacterium that can cause boils and blood poisoning), as well as the bacteria that cause cholera and anthrax.

In 1905, a patent was issued to British merchant J Appleby for the use of radiation to improve the condition of foodstuffs. But it is only since the 1950s that the technology for commercial application has become available.

There are various arguments against the irradiation of food. One is that irradiation produces a chemical in the food that could cause cancer, even though it is present in tiny amounts. All the evidence is against this. No evidence of any negative effects were observed in studies in which animals were fed irradiated food as about half of their normal diet. Another argument is that irradiation destroys the nutritional quality of the food. But the main constituents of food, such as proteins, carbohydrates and fat, are not appreciably affected at the doses used. Both the US Food and Drug Administration and the American Dietetic Association concluded that irradiation poses no risk to any nutrient in food.

There is the claim that irradiation is a quick fix for a major problem regarding food hygiene. It is seen as an easy way for the food industry to ignore sanitation before irradiation. But even good sanitation can result in less than 1 per cent of meat from a slaughterhouse being contaminated, and in the US this would mean that some 11 million kilograms of meat are contaminated. Irradiation could prevent this. But a major aspect of resistance to its use is its association with radioactivity, and the beliefs of certain groups about interfering with nature.

Irradiation does have its problems, as it does not prevent subsequent contamination by consumers or food-service workers. There is evidence that irradiation can affect the odour, colour and texture of some foods. Also, some fruits, vegetables and dairy products have a reduced shelf-life after irradiation.

In the US, only 10 per cent of herbs and spices are irradiated and less than 0.002 per cent of other foods. In the UK, there are strict regulations about food irradiation: it is not legal for any foods, apart from herbs and spices, to be irradiated for general sale, as no company holds a licence to do so.

It may rest with the public to encourage more use of food irradiation. There was a related situation in the 1930s, when pasteurised milk was introduced. Doctors and others in the health field played an important role in getting it accepted. They could play a similar role in relation to the irradiation of food. This will not be easy. In the US, approval has been given for the irradiation of hamburgers for school lunches. But groups opposed to irradiation are claiming that the children are being used as experimental animals.

Lewis Wolpert is professor of biology as applied to medicine at University College London

Suggested Topics
News
John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
News
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Property
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
property
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Sport
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Voices
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week