In Checkout Line, Lou Bendrick cooks up answers to reader questions about how to green their food choices and other diet-related quandaries. Lettuce know what food worries keep you up at night.

Dear Lou,

Is food irradiation good enough that we could theoretically go back to having rare hamburgers, soft-boiled eggs and unpasteurized milk? I miss all of those!

Carla

Dear Carla,

Let’s bond: I miss the hollandaise sauce at breakfast buffets, homemade mayonnaise, and eggnog made from scratch. Oh, and I miss raw chocolate chip cookie dough like the deserts miss the rain. 

The short answer to your question is no. If you’re going to gamble, head for Vegas (or Reno — it’s nice there, too). No food preservation method is good enough for you to take a completely risk-free bite of any food, especially when it comes to undercooked meat or egg products. Although irradiation can vastly reduce pathogens, safe handling and cooking rules must be heeded.

The longer and perhaps more interesting answer is this: Even if irradiation (ionizing radiation) were effective enough to completely sterilize our food, we might want look before we leap when it comes to this technology.

As is my style, I’ll give you some pros and cons and let you decide.

Irradiation pros:

• In an era marked by food recalls, deadly contaminations, and food borne illnesses aplenty, irradiation could prevent illness and deaths. Not only can it kill insects and parasites, it can reduce or eliminate such nasty microorganisms such as E.coli, Campylobacter, Listeria, and Salmonella.

• Irradiation is endorsed as safe by the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association. Say what you will, they’ve sure got a lot of people there with fancy initials after their names. Here’s a pro-irradiation video by the American Council on Science and Health.

 • Irradiation does not leave traces of radioactive material in food. (To the disappointment of nine-year-old boys everywhere, you will not glow in the dark if you eat it.) According to a FAQ by the University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Education Group, “Irradiation by gamma rays, X-rays and accelerated electrons under controlled conditions does not make food radioactive. Just as the airport scanner doesn’t make your suitcase radioactive, this process is not capable of inducing radioactivity in any material, including food.”

• Irradiation proponents say that the nutritional value of the food is largely unchanged. (They maintain that thiamine levels are reduced but not enough to cause deficiency.)

• Irradiation can be used to prolong the shelf-life of certain fruits and vegetables. Irradiated strawberries last weeks longer than un-irradiated ones. (Why you would want weeks-old strawberries is another question entirely.)

• The use of irradiation could eliminate the need for chemicals to control pests for certain crops. (You have to admit, this sounds good.)

Irradiation cons:

• Irradiation doesn’t make food perfectly safe. While it can reduce microorganisms, it doesn’t entirely eliminate them. And while it reduces bacteria levels, it’s not effective when it comes to viruses or prions (which are responsible for Mad Cow Disease, and, as far as I can tell, cannot be eliminated by God).

• Irradiated foods cost more. The University of Wisconsin Food Irradiation Group asserts that irradiated meat and poultry runs 3 to 5 cents more per pound. In these uncertain economic times, that premium may be enough to further put off consumers who are already a bit spooked by radiation because of that unfortunate accident at Three Mile Island or that Cold War song by Sting. But there may be other reasons.

• Irradiation opponents see it as a Band-Aid solution to huge problems in our food system that need to be fixed, not covered over. They assert that the best way to prevent food-borne illnesses and deaths is to clean up the dirty, unsafe, and inhumane conditions at factory farms and slaughterhouses that are ultimately responsible for large-scale contaminations. Check out this clip of Lou Dobbs calling for FDA heads on a platter.
 
• Opponents of irradiation say that a diet high in irradiated foods may not be safe in the long run because it damages the quality of food. They further assert that the FDA’s approval for irradiation was based on flawed and inadequate studies. For more information, check out the Organic Consumer Association’s Stop Food Irradiation Project.

• Irradiation uses a lot of energy and could create enormous environmental hazards. Here’s a cheery list of scary incidents at irradiation facilities provided by Public Citizen [PDF]. (Chant the Nuclear Industry Mantra: “There was no danger to the public at any time. There was no danger …”)

 • Irradiation may not be suitable for all foods. Allegedly, it makes tomatoes mushy. So, that nuked burger you just ordered might be safer, but the Salmonella-infected tomato slice on it could still get you.

Would I feed my own children irradiated hamburgers, albeit well-cooked ones?

Although I’d like to say a resounding no, and that I only feed my family local and organic foods all the time, I can’t pull that off. (Did you hear that? It’s my Superwoman tiara clanging to the floor. Damn! It just rolled under the fridge …) It is highly likely that my family is already eating irradiated foods whether I like it or not. While you’d think that a large radura logo would be required for each and every irradiated food, consumers now have to squint to find he words “treated with irradiation” or “treated by irradiation” on the ingredient list on labels. Foods that are not entirely irradiated but contain irradiated ingredients (such as spices) do not have to disclose them. Restaurants and school lunch programs do not have to disclose that they are using irradiated foods. Although I don’t think that protecting our little ones from E.coli-infected CAFO burgers is a bad thing, for the love of God, we need to be informed. The FDA once proposed relaxing labeling regulations to permit the term “pasteurization” when it comes to certain irradiated foods. I’m no scientist (a phrase that certainly would make my high school chemistry teacher bust a gut laughing), but since when does pasteurization involve Cobalt 60?

So, Carla, if you have any appetite left at all, go have a well-cooked egg. Once your blood sugar (and pressure) return to normal, do some soul searching and perhaps make some calls.

With fond memories of Caesar salads,

Lou

PS: You mentioned milk: It hasn’t been approved for irradiation. Pasteurization (the old-fashioned kind that involves heat), in my opinion, is still the way to go. If you want the scoop on raw milk, check out this column by my esteemed colleague, Umbra Fisk.