Food Irradiation: Great Technology, Lousy Name.


Roberto Ferdman interviews Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economist at Oklahoma State University, about why the public’s aversion to GMO foods has stayed strong even as the scientific consensus has become nearly unanimous that GMO foods are safe. Toward the end, though, he finally get to my hot button food issue:

Can you think of other forms of technology that have overcome consumer fears?

A perfect example is pasteurization in milk. At [first] it was very strange to people, and no one knew what to think about it. But today it’s widely accepted and viewed as improving the safety of milk.

Another one is microwaves. Everyone has them in their home today, but back in the 1970s it was close to zero. It took a bit for them to catch on, for people to warm up to them.

But then there are things like food irradiation that are perfectly safe but people seem to be permanently skeptical of.

Food irradiation! Dammit, Lusk is right: despite the fact that it includes the word “radiation,” food irradiation is completely harmless. It’s also really effective at killing the pathogens that cause all those periodic outbreaks of food poisoning you hear so much about. Irradiate your hamburger and you can safely cook it medium rare if you want. Irradiate your lettuce and worries about e. coli are a thing of the past. I wish someone made a cheap, personal food irradiation machine. I’d irradiate everything I ate. Unfortunately, irradiation machines tend to be the size of a dump truck and cost several million dollars, so that’s not in the cards.

Maybe the Japanese should get in on this. They’re pretty good at miniaturizing things; they’re pretty good at selling consumer tech; and they’ve got a huge domestic market of people who are gadget and technology crazy and probably aren’t afraid of irradiated food. Although I could be wrong about that, what with Hiroshima in their past and Fukushima in their present.

Anyway, food irradiation. It’s cheap on an industrial scale, totally harmless, and makes your food safer. What’s not to like?