Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Radioactive Spice-Rack

Cooks out there, take notice!

Hungary has recently banned the export of paprika. One of the largest producers of the savory spice, its culinary and cultural roots run deep, back to the time of the pepper (capsicum) plant's introduction into eastern Europe. Used in great abundance in all manner of fine dishes, from Goulash to Porkolt, the ramifications for the domestic industry in Hungary from this legislation is potentially very large indeed.

But what, pray tell, is the cause of this could-be-crisis? Fungus, or Aflatoxins in particular. You see, spices are notoriously dirty, swarming with myriad pesty critters. Many spices can be contaminated with diseases - some harmful to plants, as in the case of America banning importation of Sichuan peppercorns (fagara) to protect domestic citrus groves from potentially dangerous disease common therein.

My question is simple: why need we worry? The technology exists to make spices nerely perfectly sterile and safe. It's known as irradiation, and you may have heard of it before in frightful news stories decrying the process as dangerous and potentially harmful in itself.

In the absence of evidence supporting these chimeras, opponents of irradiation have largely succeeded in preventing wide-scale implementation of the procedure, which would, through dosing with radiation (of which, remember, light and heat are forms), destroy harmful bacteria and fungi. Steak Tartar and Sushi lovers would be free to indulge in their favored dishes with impunity, free from the realistic concern of food poisoning.

So here we find ourselves, solution in hand, yet no will to implement it. I'd call it cultural nearsightedness, but then, I'm one of those not overly scared by the procedure. We absorb radiation all the time; eating bananas will dose you, and don't even think of flying if you're worried about becoming a glow-bug - levels of cosmic radiation are far more prevalent at altitude, having less protective atmosphere to dissipate their damaging energies.

Is the fear realistic, proportional to the actual risks? I don't think so. We pursue these hobgoblins to keep peace of mind, and in doing so, often sacrifice genuine safety and security, much in the way airline security is treated (to be touched in a few days). What is seen is apparent, but the hidden costs are (forgive me for being tautologically pedantic) just that: hidden.

So gentlefolk, start your ray-guns and let's cook some irritatingly robust microfauna!

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