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Scary Effect of Food Irradiation

Posted Apr 06 2009 7:04pm

Continuing the theme that wiping out bacteria — as antibiotics do — might be a bad thing, here is a mysterious development:

The new study arose from a mysterious affliction of pregnant cats. A company testing the effects on growth and development in cats using diets that had been irradiated reported that some cats developed severe neurological dysfunction, including movement disorders, vision loss and paralysis. Taken off the diet, the cats recovered slowly, but eventually all lost functions were restored.

“After being on the diet for three to four months, the pregnant cats started to develop progressive neurological disease,” says Duncan, a professor of medical sciences at the UW-Madison School of Veterinary Medicine and an authority on demyelinating diseases. “Cats put back on a normal diet recovered. It’s a very puzzling demyelinating disease.”

Do Americans have bacteriophobia? I believe we need to eat plenty of bacteria-rich food for best health (the umami hypothesis ). If so, then irradiating food is like taking all the vitamins out of it. Of course, food irradiation is big business. From a list of FAQs:

4. Does eating irradiated food present long-term health risks?

No. Federal government and other scientists reviewed several hundred studies on the effects of food irradiation before reaching conclusions about the general safety of the treatment. In order to make recommendations specifically about poultry irradiation, U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists reviewed findings from additional relevant studies.

Independent scientific committees in Denmark, Sweden, United Kingdom and Canada also have reaffirmed the safety of food irradiation. In addition, food irradiation has received official international endorsement from the World Health Organizations and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The International Atomic Energy Agency. It’s an interesting methodological question: Is Diet X (irradiated food) “safe” because it is no worse than Diet Y (ordinary food)? What if Diet Y isn’t safe?

Duncan, the researcher quoted above, said this:

“We think it is extremely unlikely that [irradiated food] could become a human health problem,” Duncan explains. ”We think [what happened to the cats] is species specific.”

Hmm. If you don’t understand what causes the effect, how can you make strong claims about it? I think food with too-few bacteria is already a human health problem.

Thanks to Peter Spero.

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