They ate it in space. The Soviets have served it on the dining cars of the Trans-Siberia Railway. Soon, it could be seen on the supermarket shelves of America.
Food that has been irradiated - given low dosages of radiation to kill the bacteria and slow down other processes that cause it to spoil - may make its commercial debut in America within the year. This process can keep fresh fruits and vegetables, from strawberries to potatoes, fresh for months. Irradiated meats keep for years.
Irradiation could have a revolutionary effect on the way the world processes and stores food.
Based on more than 30 years of scientific research, the process has no proven hazards. Food, when exposed to cobalt 60 or cesium-139 gamma radiation (the types of radiation used commercially), cannot become radioactive. Dr. Edward Josephson, one of the foremost experts in the field, says these types of radiation are ''not energetic enough to knock off the electrons from atoms and make them radioactive.''
There are many benefits. According to United Nations reports, up to 40 percent of all food in the third world is lost due to spoilage. Irradiated foods can be shipped across long distances without refrigeration, and still arrive fresh. In many parts of Asia and Africa, where refrigerators and freezers are rare, this process could extend the edible life of most foods several times.
Irradiation would also reduce dependence on a number of chemicals now used in US food processing - including some that have proven to be hazardous, such as the nitrites used in curing meats and widely used fumigants, such as ethylene dibromide, which may soon be banned by the EPA. It would also save energy, consuming far less than the normal heating, canning, or freezing processes, scientific studies show.
But until recently, despite its wealth of promise, irradiation had never been seriously considered for commercial use in this country. The principal reason: Since 1958, government regulations have made commercial irradiation, with a few exceptions, virtually impossible.
The rationale behind the regulations centers around two issues:
1. Irradiation causes small chemical changes in the food which are not fully understood.
2. The US public is highly skeptical, even fearful, of any use of nuclear radiation. ''When people are chaining themselves to fences to stop nuclear energy, they're not going to feed it to their kids,'' says Dr. Richard Greenburg , associate director of American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a consumer group that favors use of this technology and would like to reverse this public perception.
Nonetheless, two years ago the outlook for irradiation brightened considerably. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an ''advance notice of proposed rulemaking'' in which it suggested that low-level irradiation be permitted without testing.
The FDA's final rule is expected this year, according to the agency. Its content and application are the subject of intense discussion among scientists, industry, and the government. At the heart of the debate lies the question of whether the US public will accept the development of another nuclear technology.
Irradiation is not a new discovery. In the 1890s, scientists first found that X-rays would kill spoilage mechanisms in food. By 1930, a Frenchman named A. Wust had patented the process. But in the early years, the technology was crude, expensive, and largely ignored.
Then, during World War II, the US Army began looking into irradiation as a way to feed the troops. In 1953, it decided to stage a full-scale research and development program at the Quartermaster Corps Research Laboratories in Natick, Mass. During this time, scientists made rapid gains with the technology. And interest in the food industry grew.
But in 1958, Congress passed the Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act. In it, irradiation was classified as a food ''additive,'' making it subject to strict testing. Commercial use of the process would have to be approved by petition to the FDA. The law also required that any irradiated foods be labeled as such. Commercial interest evaporated.
The government had reason to place irradiation under such strict regulation. Irradiation caused changes in the texture and taste of the food, prompting some to say it had a ''wet dog'' flavor. There was also the question of the unexplained changes in the food's chemistry.
The job of proving the safety and applicability of irradiated foods was handed over to the Army research laboratories in Natick. For more than 20 years , until 1978, these labs led the world in the research and development of this technology.
Dr. Edward Josephson was the director of the Army's program at Natick for 15 years. Five years ago he came to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he has just finished writing a three-volume book on food irradiation.
''We are a blessed country, the United States,'' said Dr. Josephson recently, ''we have year-round growing seasons and the best transportation and food-storage system in the world.'' Consequently, he added with a wry smile, even though the US led the world in irradiation research, we are the last to bring it to fruition.
He pulled a list off a nearby shelf and started to name the countries that have approved the commercial use of food irradiation, ''France, Israel, Italy, Japan, South Africa, the Soviet Union, Uruguay. . . .'' In all, he says, 24 countries have approved irradiation of more than 40 different foods.The Netherlands has approved wide use of the technology. Dr. Greenburg, associate director of the ACSH, says: ''I was in grocery stores in the Netherlands where they were selling irradiated fresh fruits.'' Irradiated blueberries could be bought, left out on a shelf, and still be fresh two months later, he says.
Much of the recent explosion of activity overseas is due to the work of a United Nations body, Dr. Josephson says. In 1981, after reviewing reams of scientific studies, a joint committee of three UN agencies said that irradiation of any food up to an overall average dose of 1 megarad (a rad is a measure of absorbed radiation energy) was safe and should require no further testing. This decision, he says, has put added pressure on the FDA to approve the process.
American astronauts have been eating irradiated food for more than a decade. They took irradiated ham to the moon. And, says Josephson, during the Apollo-Soyuz mission of 1978, Soviet cosmonauts ate irradiated beefsteaks Americans gave them, and liked the taste.
Also, says Dr. Josephson, technological advances achieved at the Natick labs have made changes in texture and the ''wet dog'' flavor a thing of the past. While at the Natick facility, he served entire meals of irradiated foods to Congressmen, top-level government bureaucrats, and groups of businessmen. All, he says, approved.
Irradiation's most outspoken supporter is Dr. Martin Welt, who is president and founder of one of the world's leading irradiation companies, Radiation Technology Inc. of Rockaway, N.J. ''Food radiation is of tremendous importance to mankind,'' he says, but for years its uses and application have been denied by the regulations of the US government.
Now, with limited approval for irradiation expected soon from the FDA, Mr. Welt is expectant. He has three operating irradiation facilities, and is building three more. With no US market as of yet, he currently irradiates food for overseas customers and NASA, which asked his company to provide food for the space shuttle.
Mr. Welt says there is tremendous potential for irradiated foods in the third world. ''With irradiation preservation,'' he says, ''we could utilize our food surpluses in the US to help developing countries.'' Right now, he adds, a great deal of surplus food is not sent overseas because of the high cost of transporting refrigerated food. Holding up a small packet of irradiated turkey, he says, ''I can drop this stuff by airplane into jungles and it could be found three months later, and would still be fresh.''
There is very little vocal opposition to food irradiation. Most consumer groups are mute on the subject.One dissenting voice comes from Robert Alvarez, director of the Environmental Policy Center in Washington, D.C, a private consumer-policy group. His chief objection is not the safety of the food itself, but rather the process. Food irradiation facilities use cobalt-60 and cesium-139 , which are nuclear-processing byproducts. These ''byproduct facilities'' operate under state regulations, and Mr. Alvarez says their standards are ''lax.'' He cites several mishaps at irradiation facilities, including leakage of storage water from a cobalt-60 plant in Dickerson, Md.
Another opponent of irradiation is Robert Rodale, editor of Prevention magazine and chairman of Rodale Press Inc., in Emmaus, Penn. Mr. Rodale says irradiation reinforces the system of centralized food processing in the US, which he claims is on the decline. ''We've seen a return, recently, to each region growing more of its own food; there are many advantages to eating fresh food.''
Richard Ronk is the deputy director of the Bureau of Foods, the branch of the FDA responsible for regulating irradiation. He says, ''As a scientist, I'm convinced irradiation is useful, safe, and someday will be approved for commercial use.''
But, he continues, there are two problems that deter its approval by the US government: ''The administrative procedures of the rulemaking process are so cumbersome that it takes a long time.'' And, he says, the process has been ''very difficult to prove safe.''
According to Clyde Takeguchi, a consumer-safety officer at the Bureau of Foods, normal testing methods, which were used in many of the scientific studies , are not adequate to prove a high enough safety factor to meet government standards.
More importantly, there is the question of unique radiolytic products (URPs). Mr. Takeguchi explains that when food is irradiated, there are a large number of new compounds created in the chemistry of the food. ''Through the studies, we've found that about 10 percent of the (radiolytic) compounds are unique.'' To date, he explains, none of these URPs have been found harmful.
With this and other data now in hand, FDA will publish a limited approval of the process ''definitely this year,'' according to Mr. Ronk.
But the FDA is taking no chances. In the proposed rule it would limit blanket approval of irradiation to levels under 100 kilorads (there are 1,000 rads in a kilorad, 1,000 kilorads in a megarad ). ''Under that level,'' Mr. Takeguchi says , ''URPs are so small they cannot be detected.''
The second part of the proposal would allow for high-level irradiation, up to 5 megarads, of food products that are ''less than 5 percent of daily diet.'' This, Mr. Takeguchi says, would permit the irradiation of spices. ''There's definitely a need for it in spices; that industry will go off like a rocket.''
The spice industry is ready. McCormick Spices of Baltimore, Md., is the largest spice company in the world. According to Richard Hall, vice-president of science and technology, McCormick has been testing the feasibility of food irradiation for more than 30 years, and they are ready to start irradiating spices as soon as the FDA changes its regulations.
But most other major food companies do not share McCormick's enthusiasm. Cleve Denny, Director of Research Services for the National Food Processors Association, an industry spokesman, says: ''The food companies have been following this with an open mind, but the big problem is, when the public looks at irradiated foods, all they see is atomic bombs.'' However, he says, many companies would ''look at it seriously'' if the FDA approves irradiation.
If approval does come, the most crucial part of the regulation would be labeling. Current regulation requires that irradiation processing be declared on the label of any food on which it is used. Dr. Welt and others in industry object to this ruling; they would like to use the phrase ''processed by ionizing energy'' or the words ''radappertized,'' (radiation sterilized) and ''raduerized ,'' (radiation pastuerized) on labels.
Dr. Greenburg of the ACSH says, ''Irradiation is just a process, like cooking; we don't put 'cooked' on a label, do we?''
Mr. Ronk of the FDA disagrees. ''I know we don't put processes like 'cooked' on labels, but talk to consumers. I think you'll find very few who don't want to know their food has been irradiated.'' Nonetheless, the agency is currently reconsidering its labeling policy.