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Washington Post photos
Oysters will be sent to Gateway America, a facility in Gulfport, Miss., which uses gamma rays to kill pathogens. Public acceptance of food irradiation has been slow in the United States.

US slow to OK irradiation

Technique zaps bacteria out of food, but public still leery

A worker in Pass Christian, Miss., prepares oysters to be shipped to an irradiation plant. Dozens of scientific studies have shown that irradiated food is safe for human consumption.

– The nuclear energy that Frank Besno uses to kill bacteria in fruit and oysters has won widespread support from public health officials and scientists, who say it could turn the tide against the plague of foodborne illness.

The Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of radiation to wipe out pathogens in dozens of food products, and for decades it has been used in other developed countries without reports of human harm.

But it has barely caught on in the United States. The technology – called irradiation – zaps bacteria out of food and is highly effective, but for many consumers it conjures up frightening images of mutant life forms and phosphorescent food.

Besno, who opened Gateway America 18 months ago, also knows his new venture pits him against the nation’s growing buy-local, back-to-nature movement that shuns industrial food processing.

“Those naysayers better throw out their microwaves, because that is irradiation,” Besno said, standing in his 50,000-square-foot irradiation facility.

Dozens of scientific studies have shown that irradiated food is safe for human consumption, and that no radiative material has leaked outside any U.S. plant, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The three forms of energy that can be used – gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays – can virtually eliminate bacteria in minutes. All this has prompted the World Health Organization, the American Medical Association, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and dozens of other groups to endorse its use.

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, blames an “anti-science movement” for the public resistance.

“Not using irradiation is the single greatest public health failure of the last part of the 20th century in America,” said Osterholm, citing CDC estimates that 1 in 6 people will get food poisoning this year and 3,000 will die. “We could have saved so many lives.”

A steadfast team of consumer advocates has successfully campaigned against its use, first at the nonprofit group Public Citizen and then after founding the nonprofit organization Food and Water Watch.

Food and Water Watch officials point out that the same energy that kills bacteria can also alter the chemical structure of food. The group’s concern is that carcinogens are created – something that Executive Director Wenonah Hauter warned about in her 2008 book “Zapped: Irradiation and the Death of Food.”

In recent years, the advocates have focused on a separate concern: That manufacturers using irradiation will slack off on other vital safety measures designed to keep pathogens out of food in the first place.

Gateway America is in what Besno thinks is a sweet spot: At the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, near the Gulf of Mexico and major highways, where vast amounts of fresh fish, fruits and meat can be shipped, trucked or flown in and treated.

A few miles down the road from his high-tech facility is an old-fashioned oyster-shucking house filled with men and women who work 10-hour shifts, knocking off mussels and clumps of dirt to provide a steady supply of oysters to Besno’s plant.

Besno not only had to gamble his life savings and recruit investors to launch his company, he had to pass a series of inspections – including one by the NRC – and is regulated by no fewer than 16 agencies. For each food item that he and other irradiators treat, the FDA has to grant permission.

Earlier this month, the agency approved irradiation for use on crustaceans but it took 13 years. The last approval before that was for spinach and iceberg lettuce in 2008, which took nearly a decade.