(Feb. 5, PACKER WEB EXCLUSIVE) When it comes to irradiating fresh produce, opinions are numerous and heated.

Irradiation proponents cite an abundance of scientific studies to back up their claims.

Opponents, while seeming to be genuinely concerned about its safety, appear to be motivated by risk-aversion and resistance to change, said University of California-Davis researcher Christine Bruhn.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has stated that the technology is safe, effective and does not change the genetics of the products.

The CDC’s Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases said that a wide range of food can be safely irradiated, including fruits and vegetables. Irradiation could eliminate E. coli O157:H7, listeria, salmonella and shigella, as well as parasites like cyclospora, the CDC states.

Robert Tauxe, a medical epidemiologist at the CDC, said at the Emerging Infectious Diseases Conference in Atlanta in 2000 that many of the concerns about irradiation are similar to earlier objections to pasteurization. The CDC, the World Health Organization and many other health organizations welcome the use of food irradiation to protect the public against foodborne diseases, Tauxe said.

“Using these promising technologies is critical to meeting national goals for foodborne disease prevention by 2010,” he said during the presentation.

Opponents say irradiation kills living plant cells. Tauxe said that’s true, but in doing so, it prolongs shelf life. In fact, he wrote, any changes caused from irradiation are “so minimal that it is not easy to determine whether or not a food has been irradiated.”

Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based activist organization founded by Ralph Nader in 1971, contends that in approving irradiation of fresh fruits and vegetables and other foods, the FDA is in league with those who use the technology in what it calls, “The Great Vitamin Robbery.” An article by Food and Water Watch, another consumer activist group based in Washington, D.C., carries the same name.

The article said irradiation “robs food of its vitamin content.”

In his presentation, Tauxe said tests on animals and humans have shown no ill effects, and that NASA routinely uses irradiated meats in the diet of astronauts.

Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, said the FDA does not have the resources to inspect irradiation processes, if used by the meat and produce industries.

“Our position on the interest in irradiation is that it’s being applied as an end-of-the-line quick-fix to things that take more careful prevention rather than just try to treat it,” she said. “I’m not ready to say the produce industry gets a pass and they’ve done everything they can. I’m sure there are some very good players, but there are also some very bad players who aren’t doing everything they can do.”

John Baillie, owner and president of Baillie Family Farms, Spreckels, Calif., and Tri-Counties Packing Co., Salinas, Calif., said it’s a mistake that everybody is pointing fingers at growers.

“We’ve been farming here since the ‘30s,” he said. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of us do the best job in the world. We’ve tested our water for eight years. We have no qualms about the way we farm.”

He said what has changed is a need for self-policing.

Bruhn said there is no evidence of any toxic substances resulting from food irradiation.

In the end, the question remains: Will consumers be willing to buy fresh fruits and vegetables if they have been irradiated?

According to a 21st Century Science and Technology article, independent studies conducted at the Universities of California, Georgia, Purdue and Kansas State revealed consumers overwhelmingly would accept irradiated food, and are even willing to pay more if it offered the same protection as pasteurized food.