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Irradiation and the ‘Ick Factor’

After the E. coli outbreak in Europe last month — which sickened more than 3000 people and killed at least 50 — it was impossible not to think about irradiation. “What if,” I asked myself, “those little fenugreek seeds had been irradiated?” Might there have been fewer deaths, fewer cases of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (essentially, kidney failure; there were 900), fewer tragic stories?

The answer is “yes.” But it’s not the only question.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food.

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