THE American food supply, including beef, is as safe as any in the world. Yet, as the poisoning of hundreds of people and deaths of three children in the Pacific Northwest last year showed, it can be made safer. That's why Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve use of irradiation for beef and why a panel of federal, industry, and health officials recently called for widespread irradiation of beef. But it won't come to pass if activists get their way.
Irradiation uses gamma rays from either radioactive material or machines to kill bacteria and other organisms. Irradiated food is no more radioactive than your luggage is after it goes through an airport X-ray machine.
The FDA already has approved irradiation on other foods, including pork, chicken, herbs and spices, fresh fruits and vegetables, and grains.
Activists fought the approval of those uses and through public agitation have succeeded in virtually denying consumers access to all but a few foods.
In condemning Mr. Espy's action, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, in Washington, declared, ``While irradiation does kill bacteria, it involves the use of inherently dangerous materials and poses its own risks to workers, the environment, and consumers.''
Instead, say irradiation opponents, the answer is increased government regulation, especially increasing the size of the government's meat-inspection force.
Yet government inspection can do little to make meat safer. The government employs only about 8,000 inspectors, including supervisors, for about 32 million head of cattle slaughtered annually.
That's just too few inspectors chasing too many steaks to explain why beef is as safe as it is or to allow the possibility that simply adding a few more federal inspectors will make the system safer. Indeed, the panel last week said that inspection methods do not detect E.coli contamination, which medical authorities have cited as the cause of last year's poisonings.
What makes food as safe as it is in this country is a market system: Foodmaker Corporation, whose Jack-in-the-Box chain sold most of the tainted meat during last year's poisoning outbreak, reported a $44 million loss as a result, along with millions of dollars in lawsuits. Meatpackers and vendors will use anything of reasonable cost to avoid that. To deny them use of irradiation is to deny them a valuable tool in protecting public health.
But what are the dangers of which Mr. Jacobson speaks?
Dangerous materials? The radioactive materials used in irradiation, cobalt 60 or the much less used cesium 137, can pose dangers to exposed persons. But they are far safer than the gasoline that powers our cars or the natural gas that heats our homes.
Danger to consumers? Thirty-seven countries world-wide, according to the Agriculture Department, have approved food irradiation. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization long ago gave their approval for irradiating food.
A 1981 WHO document states: ``All the toxicological studies carried out on a large number of irradiated foods, from almost every type of food commodity, have produced no evidence of adverse effects as a result of irradiation.''
While other methods of food preservation and preparation, such as canning and salting and curing, have simply been grandfathered in, researchers around the world have scrutinized food irradiation for decades. The FDA drew upon hundreds of studies in its decision to allow irradiation of various types of food.
Far from posing a threat to consumers, the irradiation process can replace some types of meat-food preservation that medical researchers have cited as unhealthy.
Risks to workers? Each year, more than 10,000 US workers in all occupations - including food preservation and packing - die from job-related accidents; 1,800,000 sustain disabling injuries on the job. While the approximately 40 plants in this country that irradiate either food or, more commonly, medical instruments, have had a handful of accidents, they have never had a fatality.
Risk to the environment? No accident at any irradiation plant has ever resulted in radiation leakage. No radioactive material being transported has ever been accidentally exposed.
On the other hand, meat that has been irradiated and hermetically sealed can be stored more or less indefinitely at room temperature. That should warm the heart of any environmentalist bemoaning the heavy use of energy and emission of chlorofluorocarbons (accused of depleting the ozone layer) that refrigeration entails.
So what's eating the anti-irradiation activists?
It's the same technophobia that leads these activists to question the pesticides, the powerlines, and the electronic equipment that have made life so much easier and safer in the postwar period. Any risks from salting and curing or from botched canning are acceptable, they say, but anything smacking of new technology is to be feared and fought - often with great success. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.