Jay Ambrose: E. coli outbreaks and irradiation

Authorities have traced the contaminated spinach that has killed as many as three people and sickened at least 173 to a few counties in California’s Salinas Valley, but let’s don’t stop the investigative work too soon. There’s a lesson to be learned here, an important one about the dangers of superstitious, leftist twaddle, and the threat it poses to human life.

So let’s zero in on the anti-corporate, conspiracy-minded, Nader-formed group, Public Citizen, which never quits yelping about the public good while simultaneously betraying it, and let’s focus on its opposition to irradiation, which is an extraordinary means of saving literally tens of thousands of lives lost to food-borne illness over the years.

Using gamma rays, X-rays or electrons, you can do as federal law allows and easily, quickly zap meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables with littleto no damage to taste or nutrition, but with fatal consequences for virtually all the bacteria, viruses and other creatures that afflict millions of Americans a year with painful, sometimes deadly illnesses. Is this safe? You bet it is, says the World Health Organization, U.S. government health agencies and still more science experts. The food won’t glow in the dark, and neither will people who eat it.

But anything nuclear puts the fear of something Chernobyl-like in many souls, apparently including officials at Public Citizen and not a few of those who listen to them, citizens who fall for their nonsequiturs and their highly speculative worries that are tenuous, wispy ghosts next to the ghastly reality of agonizing food-borne deaths.

These activists, who see profit-making collusion lurking behind every bush, say irradiation is no panacea. Perhaps not, but that is hardly an argument against a process so enormously effective. They say its use will dissuade agribusinesses from care in handling food, which is roughly like saying that keeping a broom in the kitchen encourages dirty floors and is reason enough to ban brooms. Yet because nervous citizens hear and believe this while ignoring sounder, scientific voices, businesses are discouraged from using a process that might cost them customers.

Some of those sounder voices were to be found in news accounts here and there as media outlets kept up with the story about E. coli-infected spinach. Dr. Wayne Askew of the University of Utah College of Health was quoted as saying irradiation might be the only sure means of having safe spinach leave processing plants. Jean Weese, identified as a food science professor at Auburn University, said in another account, “If all the fresh spinach linked to these latest E. coli outbreaks and deaths had been irradiated, no one would have died due to that spinach.”

Now consider the much-cited words of Mark Worth, a chief in Public Citizen’s anti-irradiation campaign when he spoke with the San Diego Union-Tribune five years ago. He philosophized about the need to accept the “hazards of life” and understand that “E. coli and salmonella are part of life,” and made it sound as if the eradication of smallpox was a mistake. That he said this is absolutely true. It is so true that Public Citizen soon dissociated itself from any idea it worried more about protecting bacteria or viruses than humans.

Worth’s remarks nevertheless gave us a kind of epiphany — a sudden, striking insight — into the anti-modernist, back-to-nature extremism that informs a certain style of political activism, while the remarks of nonideological experts should give us a sense of urgency about taking whatever further steps are needed in government, in business and in science to extend the benefits of irradiation wherever possible to the food that sustains us and sometimes does not.

Examiner columnist Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers. He may be reached at SpeaktoJay@aol.comGeneral OpinionOpinion

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