Proponents of food irradiation describe a future in which meat, fish, and poultry will be stored unrefrigerated for years without the threat of spoilage. But consumer groups in the United States and Europe concerned about possible health and environmental effects are resisting efforts to spread the application of the food-treatment process.
Many countries have approved food irradiation as safe. Both proponents and opponents of the process agree, however, that it may never be used on a massive scale unless it catches on in America.
Because the US conducts a huge amount of trade with the rest of the world, an American ban on food irradiation and on the importation of irradiated food would severely hinder the acceptance of the process in nations that do business with the US.
``The end of food irradiation in the US would have an impact worldwide,'' acknowledges Eddie Kimbrell, chairman of the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius Commission. This panel sets advisory international consumer-safety standards.
Food irradiation is legal in the US for preserving and fumigating a wide variety of products, although only a small amount of spices and wheat flour are currently irradiated. The roughly 40 US irradiation facilities concentrate primarily on sterilization of medical equipment.
The Department of Energy is seeking private financing to set up six demonstration plants around the US dedicated solely to food irradiation.
But the process is under fire from consumer groups and some scientists determined to force the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to rescind its approval of the procedure.
Under a bill introduced last month by Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine and Rep. Douglas Bosco (D) of California, FDA approvals of irradiation for all products except spices would be suspended pending a two-year study by the National Academy of Sciences on the health and environmental effects of irradiation.
Also, the National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, which represents 57 grass-roots organizations, has spearheaded the introduction of anti-irradiation bills in at least 15 states.
The industry ``is in a delaying action at this point in time,'' admits Dr. Edward Remmer, a chemist at the American Council of Science and Health in New York and one of the nation's most ardent food irradiation advocates.
In 1983 the United Nations' Codex Alimentarius Commission recommended that food could be safely irradiated at levels up to 1 million ``rads.'' A ``rad'' is a unit used to measure the absorption of radioactivity by a product.
Following the UN ruling, the FDA authorized the treatment of pork, produce, grains, and spices at up to 100,000 rads. There are 27 other countries that have authorized food irradiation to some degree, although fewer than 10 were using it commercially by mid-1985, according to an October 1986 study by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Japanese potatoes, South African produce and meat, and Soviet grain are among the products being treated with radiation.
Food irradiation involves the exposure of food products to concentrations of radioactive source materials, usually Cobalt-60 or Cesium-137. Contrary to popular belief, irradiation does not make food radioactive.
Low-level irradiation (5,000 to 100,000 rads) can extend the shelf life of fruits and vegetables and render harmless the trichinosis-causing parasite in fresh pork. At higher levels (100,000 to 1 million rads) it extends the shelf life of fish, meat, and poultry.
Along with the benefits of irradiation, there are risks, according to the USDA study. Low-level irradiation allows re-infestation of food by insects, delays ripening in some fruits, and does not obviate the need to refrigerate treated meat.
Even at higher doses, recontamination is possible for all foods, and above certain doses softening, pitting, and other problems occur in fruit.
In addition, other studies have indicated that cancer-causing agents called aflatoxins grow more rapidly on irradiated foods, says Kathleen Tucker, president of the Washington-based Health and Energy Institute. She also notes that certain vitamins and minerals are destroyed by the process, thus reducing foods' nutritional value.
Critics also point out the dangers, particularly in developing nations, of trying to handle radioactive materials safely. ``Put these facilities in third-world countries, and you're looking at more potential Bhopals,'' warns Robert Alvarez of the Environmental Policy Institute here.
Irradiation proponents scoff at the health and safety questions raised by the critics. The procedure ``has been studied to death,'' argues Dr. Remmer, who maintains that the calls for more testing ``are pretty much irrelevant at this point.''
In addition, many of the studies that caution about health hazards are scientifically unsound, he claims. ``Scientists who have studied irradiation for many years laugh at [the opponents'] criticisms,'' says Remmers.
Food irradiation's critics show no sign of relenting, however. Noting that roughly two dozen scientists have joined consumer groups in voicing reservations about the procedure's safety, Tucker remarks, ``We're not just a few health-food fanatics complaining about it here and there.''