My latest Mind and Matter column at the Wall Street Journal is about the precautionary principle as exemplified by the German e coli outbreak, which has now killed 29. Less precaution about new technology might have meant fewer deaths:
A technology that might have prevented contaminated produce from infecting thousands of Germans with E. coli was vetoed-by Germany-11 years ago for use in the European Union. Irradiating food with high-voltage electrons is a process that can kill bacteria on or in solid objects, just as pasteurization can kill them in liquid foods.
When the European Commission proposed in 2000 that irradiation be allowed for a greater range of foods and at a higher dose, the German government vetoed the measure. In the U.S., food irradiation is used for various products, including ground beef, but most retailers resist the practice, lest the word “irradiated” on the label scare off customers.
In Europe, irradiation is used only for some spices and herbs. The German veto was a perfect example of what is wrong with the “precautionary principle”-the idea, long advocated by environmentalists, that the burden of proof is on innovators to demonstrate that a new technology is safe before it is approved.
The food-irradiation industry has argued strenuously for decades that its technology is proven to be safe, cannot leave food radioactive and does not taint the taste of food. Yet even in the U.S., legislation requires that irradiation be shown not just to have net benefits but to do no harm at all-no diminution of vitamin content, for example.
As Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, pointed out in an interview, that is a standard to which microwave ovens, grills and even medical products such as vaccines and hip replacements cannot aspire. The technology is effectively judged guilty until proven innocent.
The precautionary principle often holds new technologies to a higher standard than existing technologies. In Europe, for example, genetically modified foods must be labeled in such a way that they can be traced “from farm to fork.” Organic crops grown with manure have no such requirement placed on them, but these products pose higher risks to human health than genetically modified crops. Manure is quite safe if properly composted to a sterilizing temperature, but that cannot always be achieved.
A lot of concerns over the use of irradiation are out of date. In the past, cobalt-60, a gamma-emitting radioactive isotope, was used as a source of the radiation for food, which tainted the whole enterprise with scare words like “gamma” and “radioactive.” Now, however, the most common means of food irradiation is to use an electron gun of the kind found, until the arrival of flat screens, in every ordinary TV set.
Dr. Osterholm reckons that irradiation is the necessary fourth pillar of a public-health platform-the other three pillars being chlorination, vaccination and pasteurization-that has delivered astonishing progress against infectious disease and a dramatically longer average life span over the past century. Since it’s impossible to make food entirely clean by using plastic sheeting in the field or by washing, irradiation could be the last, best step before any inherently unsafe food reaches our plates.
Of course, nobody can be certain that irradiation, if it had been common practice by now, would have prevented the E. coli outbreak in Germany, though the process certainly does kill that particular kind of bacterium. But that is the point. We do not know. We can never know what deaths would have been prevented if a technology had been allowed that, in fact, was not allowed.