NBC News Transcripts - Iowa State University

NBC News Transcripts
Some advocate irradiation as key to food safety; diet and nutrition editor Madelyn
Fernstrom discusses subject
And we're back at 8:10. Remember the spinach scare? What about the one at
Taco Bell? Those recent E. coli outbreaks might have you worried about what
you're feeding your family. Some say radiation is the answer to all those
problems, but is it safe?
(From file footage) Two more suspected cases of E. coli contamination...
(From file footage) This subject has been in the news a lot recently. It's an E. coli
ANN CURRY, anchor:
(From file footage) The outbreak has spread to at least 19 states, is being
blamed for one death.
VIEIRA: Recent reports on foodborne illness in the US have many consumers up
in arms about food safety, fears that some experts say can be prevented with the
use of a treatment called irradiation.
Mr. DENNIS OLSON (Professor of Animal Science, Iowa State University):
We expose foods to a very high energy source and that causes ionization
of DNA. So effectively we're killing these bacteria by damaging their DNA.
VIEIRA: Students at Iowa State University, one of the country's two
teaching facilities, learn the process...
Unidentified Man #1: Just push it all the way up to the stop.
VIEIRA: ...in their own treatment center and university labs where bacteria is
Unidentified Man #2: We have two plates showing the bacteria that have resulted
after 24 hours of growth. The radiation will reduce that to nondetectable results.
VIEIRA: Irradiated foods are available in stores, usually costing a few additional
cents. The process is FDA approved, and with 5,000 deaths a year attributed to
food bacterias, like the E. coli virus, some argue all food should be irradiated. But
consumer advocates like DC-based Food and Water Watch say, `Not so fast.'
Ms. PATTY LOVERA (Food and Water Watch): We need to do a lot more to
make sure that we're growing clean food in the first place, rather than treat it with
these really harsh, dangerous technologies to try to fix it at the end of the line.
VIEIRA: But proponents like Dennis Olson stand by the technology.
Mr. OLSON: There's no question that it is safe.
VIEIRA: Ultimately, consumers will decide.
Madelyn Fernstrom is TODAY's diet and nutrition editor, as well as the director of
the Weight Management Center at the University of Pittsburgh.
Madelyn, good morning to you.
Ms. MADELYN FERNSTROM (Today Diet and Nutrition Editor): Good morning,
VIEIRA: As we saw in that spot, several E. coli scares in recent months in this
country. If irradiation can get rid of the E. coli--get rid of the problem, then why
aren't we seeing more products in the stores that have been irradiated?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Because it--you say "irradiated" and what pops into your
mind? Radioactivity. And it's absolutely untrue. Food irradiation is another word
for cold sterilization. We think, for example, with milk. It's pasteurized and it kills
off all the bacteria with heat. We would never think of drinking unpasteurized
milk. Similarly, with raw food, with meats and produce, that cold sterilization--that
is, food irradiation--just takes energy rays and is exposed to the food and then
kills off most of the bacteria. So it's very safe. And I think if it were called cold
sterilization, more people would embrace it.
VIEIRA: So these waves essentially just go through, pass through food. Is that
how it works? Or...
Ms. FERNSTROM: Right, it passes through the food. Think of this sort of like
microwaves, like we have in a microwave oven, but it doesn't cook the food.
VIEIRA: So it's essentially bad PR then? If they called it cold pasteurization,
you're saying, people would have no issue with it?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Well, here is something that--a recent Purdue University
study showed that if you gave people a short introduction about what this would
be doing to food and how it would protect the food supply, nine out of 10 people
would decide, `OK, I'd really try that.' And that's a good thing. There's a lot of
misunderstanding. And, of course, when one hears about, `Well, maybe we
should just protect the food supply. Why don't we just get to the root of this and
get rid of all the bacteria'...
VIEIRA: Well, that's a good point, though, Madelyn.
Ms. FERNSTROM: And I appreciate that. The issue is, in a perfect world, that
would be wonderful, but I think that cold pasteurization, food irradiation can be a
good tool to help keep the food supply safe. It does not replace good
manufacturing processes.
VIEIRA: There are some special interest groups who say that sometimes this
irradiation can chemically alter food and create things like carcinogens. Now, the
FDA and the CDC have said that's not true, the food is safe. Who's right? Who
do you believe?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Well, yeah, we have to go with more than 40 years of
scientific data. People worry about these things, the FDA, the CDC, and
scientists working in this area. It is absolutely safe. And the fear of and opinion
about this can't really supersede the ability to say we need to keep the food
supply safer and try and kill off as much bacteria as possible.
VIEIRA: Doesn't it, with certain foods, actually change, though, the texture of the
food and possibly the taste of the food?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Now, of course, food irradiation can't be for everything. We
really want to look at, you know, things that--like potatoes and onions and some
of the fruits and vegetables. That can have a change in texture and perhaps in
taste, and it may not be for some of these things. Certainly for raw meats,
poultry, pork, lamb, you know--and you can even purchase some already
packaged. And there's an international sign for food irradiation.
VIEIRA: What is the sign? How do you know if your food has been irradiated?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Well, there--because there's a sign that is agreed upon that's
on the food. And I have to tell you, we did have a little trouble in sort of the
Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey area finding some of this, but we did
get some examples. And hopefully we'll see some more of these foods once
people understand this can really help to keep the food supply safe.
VIEIRA: At this point, just so I understand--because I don't think I've ever run into
this symbol in my supermarket; maybe I just haven't been aware of it--but how
much food right now in this country is irradiated?
Ms. FERNSTROM: Well, very little. And I believe an estimate is about 1 percent
of the food is irradiated. Now, it is--it is approved to be irradiated and then sent to
the supermarkets, but the debate really goes on. Will consumers purchase this?
The cost issue is not--is not significant. It's just pennies more. But also there can
be a lot of savings in produce if it's used for that because spoilage is less. You
can have a longer shelf life, which can be a help, and much less food wasted.
VIEIRA: But bottom line, whether your food is irradiated or not irradiated, you still
have to practice healthy preparation at home.
Ms. FERNSTROM: Well--right, once the food gets home, you still have to wash
your hands, not mix raw and cooked things. It's only going to protect it coming
from the farm to your house. And then you still have to use safe practices. And
the same with restaurants.
VIEIRA: OK, irradiation does not equal radioactive.
Ms. FERNSTROM: No, it's a safe thing and good to kill bacteria, keep the food
supply safe.
VIEIRA: Madelyn Fernstrom, as always, thank you very, very much.
Ms. FERNSTROM: You're welcome.
VIEIRA: And up next, are you embarrassed because your place is a mess? Not
me. Now some people are saying, `Don't fret. Embrace it.' We'll find out why right
after this.