As is my custom of the morning, I take my daily bowl of Go Lean (but not lightly) with a browse of the Tribune; the idle life of the college professor ideally suited to those extended, leisurely morning repasts with opportunity for reflection upon the ways of the world. An article on the proposed irradiation of produce to eliminate bacteria on the front page caught my eye. When I began the educational trail as a fresh-face adjunct (how soon the optimism of youth gives way to the cynicism of old age in the academic setting), food irradiation was a "hot topic" in the food world. It served as an interesting case study in perception versus reality in assessing risk.
Anything containing the word radiation leaps to the top of the charts in perceived risk, regardless of any facts pointing to its absence. One can discover these disconnects all over the place from the mundane to the sophisticated. We think nothing of driving a car to work (pretty high risk of trouble) but sweat feverishly when the airplane takes off (pretty low risk of trouble). How many pages are devoted to shark attacks (almost no fatalities) versus say coal mining (high numbers of injuries).
Radiation though is the number one bad word, perhaps closely followed by chemical. The reasons for that are pretty clear: the awfulness of Hiroshima that ushered in the nuclear age; the hugely published Chernobyl disaster; the ghastliness associated with radiation sickness. Selling radiation presents a major challenge to the nuclear industry, but I don't think that it has really embraced the challenge.
A decade ago food irradiation was established as a perfectly acceptable and safe technique for sanitizing various food groups by several organizations including food organizations that had no ties with the nuclear industry. Yet the public perception could still be swayed by a collection of dedicated anti-nuclear groups that operated a number of anti-irradiation websites. While the mainstream organizations found no evidence of health effects with irradiated food, the anti-nuke activists referenced various "studies" that found sickness in dogs and other troubling things. The innocent investigator would be left wondering what is what when confronted by this apparent conflict in findings. Who has the time to sort out which of the "evidence" presented is bona fide and which is fake? And that is the point of course: the activists recognize that all you have to do to establish doubt is to suggest problems; it isn't necessary to have any real proof of any problems.
Ten years later nothing has really changed regarding irradiation. The problem, the article stated was consumer acceptance. What is wrong with this picture? It is all arse backwards. It is absurd that uneducated consumers should be dictating what is or is not acceptable. If a process has been established as safe by a critical mass of research, then that should be the end of it; the consumer should be satisfied. Unfortunately that is not the case in this country at least. It points to a fundamental lack of respect for science in the general populace and an overwhelming vulnerability to misleading influences from special interest groups.
Maybe I am weird, but for my part I am far more comfortable munching a tomato that has been zapped by gamma rays than one that may be crawling in e-coli.