When asked whether this new mandate would also apply to imported foods, Secretary Jenna Bush replied, "You betcha!"
The announcement was made on the 25th anniversary of the date that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared the largest produce-related Salmonella outbreak in US history to be at an end. That outbreak, which was traced eventually to contaminated jalapeño and serrano peppers imported from Mexico, sickened 1,442 people, sending nearly 300 of them to hospital.
In the 25 years since that watershed outbreak, the number of food poisoning incidents linked to meats, eggs, poultry, produce and dairy products has increased steadily. And the number of different types of disease-causing E. coli in the environment, in livestock, and in our food supply has grown dramatically.
"It's not just about E. coli O157:H7 anymore," said Secretary Bush. "There are at least two dozen different toxin-producing E. coli that are just as deadly as O157:H7. Twenty-five or thirty years ago, we might have been able to clean up feedlot runoff. We could have prevented these pathogens from overrunning our agricultural areas. But we didn't – it would have cost too much."
Slaughterhouse operators and meat packers welcomed the announcement. "It's great news," said the CEO of Universal Beef, "we'll finally get away from all the expensive and burdensome HACCP/SSOP regulations that were imposed on us by the government a generation ago." Spokespeople for the produce and poultry industry associations were equally effusive.
Not everyone, though, welcomed the announcement. Small-scale farmers, livestock operators and food processors expressed concern about the cost of implementing this new mandate. And "natural food" activists were fighting mad. "This is disgusting," said one woman who asked not to be identified, "Irradiation will destroy the nutrients in our food. We've polluted our water and soil, and we should clean it up. What kind of a world are we leaving our children?"
We contacted Phyllis Entis, the now-retired founder of eFoodAlert and author of the classic text Food Safety: Old Habits, New Perspectives, for her reaction to the announcement. "I saw this coming 25 years ago," said Ms. Entis. "I predicted in 2008 that we were on a slippery slope to mandatory food irradiation."
Most of the country's trading partners reacted angrily to the US announcement. "It's an unfair trade barrier," exclaimed the President of Mexico. "Not fair dinkum," commented Australia's Minister of Trade, "our food is clean and we should not have to irradiate in order to sell to the US market." "I'm outraged that we were not consulted beforehand," commented the President of the EU, "we must consider very carefully before deciding to allow irradiated US foodstuffs into Europe."
When contacted, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs declined to comment. His aide, however, hinted that Canada would soon be announcing its own mandatory food irradiation policy.
The US Food and Drug Administration authorized the use of radiation for the first time in 1963, permitting its use to control insect infestation in wheat and wheat products. During the following decades, additional applications of gamma radiation and electron beam sterilization were approved, including spices, certain fruits and vegetables, as well as fresh meat and poultry. And on August 22, 2008, spinach and iceberg lettuce were added to the list.
But these were voluntary uses, to be accompanied by appropriate retail package labeling. Now the rules have changed, and almost everything we eat will be irradiated.
Will this be a change for the better, or the downfall of our food supply?
No one really knows. Are we worried?
In the words of our Secretary of State for Food Safety, "You Betcha!"
**Disclaimer** Of course, this is pure fantasy. Will it happen? We don't know. Could it happen? Yes. Should we worry? You Betcha!