Stigma or Seal of Quality? The Food and Drug Administration requires that food treated by irradiation be labelled with this international symbol.

Is the U.S. food supply the safest in the world? President Clinton insists that it is. But these days many Americans are not sure that it is quite safe enough. Outbreaks of new and more virulent strains of foodborne pathogens, massive recalls of contaminated food and ominous reports that bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics have made many consumers suspicious of the contents of supermarket shelves.

In a recent Scientific American Exploration, "Is It Safe to Eat?," we asked visitors to this Web site to send us their opinions on several issues. Few commented on the calls for tougher government regulation, and fewer still on restricting the large amounts of antibiotics that are administered to farm animals.

But when we asked if consumers would accept food treated by irradiation, we apparently struck a nerve. The food industry is convinced that this 40-year-old technology is the most efficient and inexpensive way to eliminate pathogens from food, and it is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to approve its use for beef. Scientific American's readers agree overwhelmingly. Despite a general fear of "radiation" and organized opposition, many say they would not only buy irradiated food-they would prefer it and be willing to pay a premium.

Here is a selection of the responses.

Food Irradiation

I am completely convinced that any adverse consequences of irradiating food are far outweighed by the tangible benefits of irradiation. Fears of radioactive food, the formation of toxic by-products and reductions in nutritional value have been more than adequately addressed and proven unfounded.

Margate, N.J.

We believe the government should encourage the wider use of food irradiation technology to ensure a safer food supply. This technology neither makes food radioactive nor unhealthy--it has been used by the U.N., NASA and the military for decades with no ill effects.

Middlebury, Vt.

I am in favor of food irradiation, provided it was used in concert with other good food preparation practices (e.g., good farming techniques, clean slaughterhouses, good slaughtering practices, etc.). It is also very important to stress to people that they must prepare and cook their food with care, regardless of the capabilities of the food processors.

Pinawa, Manitoba

The facts all support the safety of food irradiation. Forty years of testing confirms that there are no surprises. Astronauts, soldiers and many hospital patients are given irradiated food, when infection must be avoided. The opposition is from a small group of zealots who threaten to boycott any company that dares to go ahead. They are very active on the Internet, stirring up panic. If we were talking about a mandatory, universal use of irradiated food, such caution would be understandable. But I resent the fact that a few ideologues can deny me the option to eat safe food. Nine thousand Americans die each year because of this irrational opposition. If this continues, I know several people who are considering suing to gain this right. Someone should be held accountable for these needless deaths.

Chevy Chase, Md.

I fully agree with the treatment by using ionizing radiation. But the general public needs to be convinced: it is still "radiation."

San Diego, Calif.

I would certainly buy meat and any other food bearing the label with the radiation sign. I have eaten an entire dinner prepared with food irradiated in a government-licensed food irradiator in Tustin, Calif. The dinner was excellent, and I had the peace of mind of knowing that I was not exposed to dangerous bacteria.

My wife and I have inquired at a number of local grocery stores for irradiated food, but none are willing to handle it at this time. We would be willing to pay a premium for irradiated food. The advantages are obvious for those who have taken the time to learn the facts.

La Jolla, Calif.

The risks involved with food-irradiation are virtually nil. The risks removed by food irradiation are measurable. It would be foolish not to implement this process unless the costs were extraordinary.

Byron, Ill.

I would view the food irradiation symbol as a seal that the food product has received the best available treatment to assure its safety for human consumption.

Torrance, Calif.

I find it very interesting that we are very concerned over the deaths of a small number of children due to air bags, yet the number that die due to food-related illness that could be prevented are not discussed. In both cases, personal decisions must be made to protect the children. Place them in the back seat away from the air bag. Provide them with safer food products that have been irradiated. In the first case this is easy. With food irradiation, I am prevented from making a choice. Put the food on the market, label it just like other processes and let the public decide. Who knows, we consumers may be smarter than we get credit for.

Phoenix, Ariz.

As I understand it, many of the spices we eat have been irradiated already. If we were able to remove the nitrates and nitrites from processed meats by irradiating them instead, that would be a big step in the right direction. Many of the preservatives used today have served their purpose--and well--by preventing disease, but irradiation, although it is expensive now, would do as good a job with fewer health side effects.

San Diego, Calif.

I think irradiated food should be labeled as such, so that consumers have a clear choice. Then, if they are concerned that it could contain unique radiolytic products, they can choose not to buy it. I see no reason why anyone should deny my right to choose by picketing or boycotting stores that carry such products.

We have a better technology available. Let's use it to ensure that those who want safe food can obtain it.

Rockville, Md.

Food-irradiation technology has been proven to be extremely safe and effective. It does not make food radioactive, nor does it reduce the nutritional content of food any more than traditional food preservation, processing, or cooking techniques do. Thousands of sicknesses and deaths could have been and can be prevented by this technique. We must not let the irrational and unsupported claims of the anti-nuclear movement sway people into fearing food irradiation.

State College, Pa.

I strongly suspect that scores of lives in this country could have been saved had such processing been approved decades ago.

Santa Fe, N.M.

Food irradiation is saving lives and preserving food supplies in many countries around the world. Unfortunately, we in the U.S. with such a high standard of living continue to pay a very high price for food sickness and even deaths, when most could be avoided.

Those who continue to stand in the way and delay the use of irradiation should be held criminally and morally liable for the unnecessary suffering.

Idaho Falls, Idaho

There does not seem to be any debate. The technology appears to work, and anyone who knows anything about radiation would feel perfectly comfortable about eating irradiated beef.

At issue is educating the public on radiation and dispelling the theory that radiation, no matter how small the levels, is bad. The public would have absolutely no problem accepting this sterilization methodology provided they were given the facts without rhetoric and hysteria.

Richland, Wash.

I would definitely buy food labeled as irradiated. As a matter of fact, I would actively seek it out.

Norwalk, Conn.

I would prefer irradiated food and seek it out if it were available. But I don't think that the radiation symbol as a label is either appropriate or wise. It is appropriate only for radioactive sources, which is not the case for irradiated food. It would be better to come up with a new, neutral symbol stressing safety.

Espanola, N.M.

If people don't want to buy irradiated meat, they can buy meat made safe by some other process. I have often wished to have such meat available on backpacking trips, when refrigeration is not available.

Fremont, Calif.

I would buy meat with the radiation symbol. The real issues, in my mind, are what assurance is given, and what standards are set, that a proper exposure is given to individual packages of meat.

Newport Beach, Calif.

I would definitely buy irradiated meats, fruits, vegetables, spices and anything else. In fact, I would be willing to pay more for irradiated foods because I understand that they are safer.

No Address Given

Why are we so radiation averse? We are exposed to natural sources of radiation everyday. I can understand that there are those who grew up seeing the horrors of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, but the power of the atom has improved our quality of life far more than it has threatened it. MRIs, nuclear chemistry and, yes, food irradiation, save lives. I would feel much more confident eating an irradiated hamburger than pulling into a [fast-food restaurant] and wondering how much at risk I am if I take a bite.

Springfield, Va.

Having been in Japan at the time of an E. coli outbreak, and witnessed the anguish of parents watching children suffer as a result of the infection, I find it hard to understand why people are opposed to irradiating foods. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration uses irradiated food for the astronauts; hospitals serve it to transplant patients to make sure that they are not exposed to sources of infection. It would seem that the protection offered by food irradiation far outweighs any negatives.

Norcross, Ga.

No method can completely make up for sloppy food handling and insufficient cooking. The well-publicized incidents of food poisoning are not an indictment of food safety but of poor food preparation. Humans have been cooking food to kill germs for (at least) thousands of years. When a person or restaurant doesn't cook food properly, people get sick.

Our food supply is probably the safest it has been in the history of mankind. If a restaurant leaves even irradiated meat sitting at room temperature too long and then does not cook it properly, it can still make a lot of people sick. If we publicize food irradiation as a magic bullet that will end all of these problems, then we are setting ourselves up for a dismal and very public embarrassment.

State College, Pa.

Seems that paying illegal aliens starvation wages in a packing plant in Iowa might be part of the problem. It was much safer when hamburger was ground when you needed it. And maybe buying vegetables from the places our chemical companies still sell DDT to isn't such a good idea either.

It's been 20 years since you could buy a ripe piece of fruit in the supermarket. Even the potatoes are green now. Enough "safe" food. How about some good food?

Eugene, Ore.

If I were shopping in a place that buys meat in bulk from a large distributor, I would select meat that had been irradiated, to feel more secure.

My wife has discarded the wooden chopping board that she used for cutting meat on the kitchen counter because she was worried that she could not clean it adequately afterwards. We now use a glass plate.

Mississauga, Ontario

Of course I would buy meat labeled with the radiation symbol! I want the safest food supply possible for my kids, and irradiation is a relatively inexpensive way to do that.

Los Alamos, N.M.

Bring on safe food! I would gladly pay more to know with certainty that I was feeding my family foods free from pesticide, bleach solutions and potentially deadly bacteria. Further, I resent the activists who encroach on my freedom to make my own choices from an informed viewpoint. Each time that I read that another life has been lost because of the ignorance of the public and the self-serving activists and industry types, who have been too timid to promote irradiation, I am incensed all over.

In a world where there is still hunger, how can we content ourselves with sending back or destroying perfectly good food? Twenty-five million pounds of beef? How obscene!

Needham, Mass.

Of course the public would buy irradiated food. Many of us would pay MORE for the assurance of safety the process provides. It is only the irrational "anti-anything nuclear" camp that seems to lump anything with the radiation symbol into the same ethical and philosophical arena as an atomic bomb.

A truly safe, proven, efficient and convenient technology like irradiating foodstuffs is being held up by bureaucratic foot-draggers and a vocal antinuclear minority. Recently a group claiming to represent consumers threatened to boycott the Hormel company for merely attending a scientific conference on food irradiation. Meanwhile people are being sickened and killed by toxic food.

Rockford, Ill.

Given the fact that irradiation is harmless, why would anyone be against a process that makes food safer to handle and consume? In addition to food safety, irradiation also has economic benefits. Irradiated foods last longer on the shelf, and fruits taste better due to the ability to vine ripen them before shipping. Having spent 10 years in school studying radiation of all types, I hate to see misunderstandings prevent its use in such highly beneficial ways. Rational concern is useful for any new technology. Irrational, emotional reactions to anything new or different are only useful for promoting political agendas.

Santa Fe, N.M.

I would very much appreciate having the choice to purchase in my local supermarket beef and other meats that had been treated with radiation to kill pathogens.

Like irradiated meat, nonirradiated meats should also be required to carry a warning label:

"Occasionally nonirradiated meat contains dangerous bacteria. The contents of this package should be cooked completely, and all utensils coming in contact with the juices should be sterilized after use to prevent the transmission of bacteria."

Berkeley, Calif.

Government Regulation

The first break in the chain of being able to regulate food safety is that workers are not savvy in the necessity of health or sanitary practices because of the atmosphere in which they work. Number two is that there are not enough people to look over the shoulders of the producers or to inspect every individual item. Without raising the price to detrimental levels, the farmers cannot afford to hire anyone else, and the Food and Drug Administration cannot afford to hire enough qualified inspectors. To just blindly write 'higher standards' (whatever they may be) on a piece of paper is not going to fix the problem; producers will continue the same practices if they are not educated as to the how's and why's of the higher standard.

San Antonio, Tex.

The Food and Drug Administration and Agriculture Department must have the funds and capability to monitor use of the irradiators to assure effectiveness in killing bacteria. The current meat inspection track record does not give me much comfort on this issue.

The problem is getting the food processors to do what they promise to do and to do it with a very high assurance. Currently there is low assurance.

Newport Beach, Calif.

Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of beef because 16 people were exposed to E. coli bacteria. Immediately, the incident was a hot news item. Meanwhile, 140 people became sick from oysters, 150 from strawberries containing hepatitis A and 1,400 from Guatemalan raspberries. In short, the government has overreacted to less than 1 percent of the most recently documented food poisoning cases and has done nothing about all the rest. Giving it more enforcement power would be akin to handing a six-year-old the keys to a Lamborghini and sending him on the Autobahn.

People may debate the efficacy of regulation-happy agencies, but as an employee of a large chemical company, one thing is undeniable: companies will do whatever it takes to keep inspections and fines to a minimum. This invariably means going overboard on their safety precautions, especially when the media pushes the panic button as it did with the Hudson beef incident.

Norristown, Pa.

The food industry should be treated like the criminals they are.

Georgetown, Ky.

Antibiotic Resistance

Using antibiotics to increase profit and food yield (in mechanized animal husbandry) comes with an equal and opposing reaction. Trying to permanently change the equilibrium position between microorganisms, livestock and ourselves simply cannot be done. In the short term we may prevail, but the long-term cost will more than outweigh any benefits we've gained.

The first step in preventing any further abuse of antibiotics is to acknowledge that we humans cannot win a war against microbes. We will always lose a certain percentage of our agricultural production to pests of one kind or another, regardless of any measures we take to prevent this. Mechanization of livestock production puts unnecessary strains on the animals' immune systems. Severely crowded living conditions will always increase the spread of disease. We must allow the natural equilibrium to reestablish itself and work within its natural boundaries.

Las Vegas, Nev.

It seems blazingly clear now that with food irradiation we can avoid both serious illness and the unwise overuse of precious antibiotics.

Ottawa, Ontario