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The Cost of Eating Organic Food; or: Will E. Coli Increase Our Appetite for Irradiated Food?


We’ve been preparing a Freakonomics Radio piece on the hidden or overlooked costs of eating organic food. (Hint: living creatures that might be deterred by pesticides might not be deterred without pesticides.) In the meantime, a massive example has arisen in Europe, where the recent deadly E. coli outbreak has been traced to organic bean sprouts grown in northern Germany. In his Wall Street Journal column, Rational Optimist Matt Ridley makes a fervent argument that such an outbreak needn’t have happened:

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 case you think the argument for irradiation is part of a vast right-wing conspiracy, consider this Huffington Post article by the A.P.’s Lauran Neergaard, titled “Is Irradiation The Future Of E. Coli Prevention?”