I'm a vegetarian.
Now, before you roll your eyes and run for cover under a golden arch, let me explain. That doesn't mean I only eat vegetables, rather I eat every food but meat. There's a distinction. It's like saying that I'm a pedestrian, but I only walk in the country, while in the city I avoid running.
That's the kind of vegetarian I am, for those of you who run in the city and have never walked in the country.
But, now comes meat and the U.S. Government, with the Food & Drug Administration approving the use of irradiation to make pigs, cows and sheep safe for us to eat, and doesn't my internal smokescreen alert go off whenever I see: "U.S. Regulators approve" and "consumer groups worry" in the same sentence.
Just once, I'd like to read: "U.S. Regulators approve the use of free syrup dispensers at Hagen Daaz outlets, and chocoholic watchdogs slurp it up," but I'd still bet that in this Congress, a hot fudge filibuster would soon follow.
This hot meat news bit did send me scrambling for deep background, and here's the crux of your new irradiated rib roast: "The FDA approved using tiny doses of gamma rays to kill bacteria and parasites in beef."
Now, let's get right to some little known gamma ray facts, at least those in a non-scientific mind, beginning with mine: Gamma rays are made of light, but we can't see 'em. They're sent to earth after a star mixes it up with a black hole, and though they can't get past the earth's atmosphere, they manage to thrive in my garden compost heap.
They're harmless, but an overexposure to them will turn me into The Swamp Thing.
Men just love to say "gamma" around women. It's a physicist guy thing.
"Gamma-lamma ding-dong, hot stuff?" is still an effective pick-up line at the annual physicist convention, and you should probably avoid my compost heap.
When I got this far, concerned for the safety of my Victory Garden vegetables, it was time to ask the folks at the Washington State University Department of Physics about gamma rays:
"Hi, I'm a humor columnist. I need some info on gamma rays."
"Glad you called, Elwin. We're a condensed-matter research group studying the local structure of solids, using nuclear hyperfine interactions techniques."
“Uh ... okay. But, I just need to know if it’s safe to eat meat treated with gamma rays.”
“Sure thing. Here, we focus every day on point defects and defect interactions, using the principal technique of gamma ray perturbed angular correlation, and we know all about it. Tell your readers there’s almost no danger.”
“Uh ... right. So, you’re saying gamma ray-irradiated meat is probably okay to eat?”
“Absolutely, sometimes. Hey, you write a humor column? Did you hear the one about the lab rat, the atomic-scale studies of grain-boundary diffusion, and the inter-metallic equilibrium flaw? It’s a real barn burner.”
“Uh ... no thanks, but could you connect me with the English Department? I’m also curious if ‘gamma ray’ is allowed as a hyphenated verb. You know: ‘Could my compost heap gamma-ray the dog?’”
Despite my dietary non-investment in the subject, I was still driven on by a devotion to duty, owing it to the carnivores in this readership. Consider, I was researching this subject as a stranger in a strange land, where people say “thermally sterilized comestibles” when talking about canned food.
I only wanted to learn if eating a hyphenated gamma-rayed hamburger was risky, but I found myself immersed in matter/anti-matter annihilation small talk.
Turns out that most of the food industry already uses gamma rays. The poultry industry was given the gamma green light years ago, and the chicken and turkey people say that “the rays themselves never come into contact with our food, but the beta radiation kills various organisms such as bacteria and insects.”
This was even more troubling, because I’ve always considered myself a “various organism” baby in the bacterial-buggy bathwater of life, already overstocked with anti-microbial armies. Still, I pressed on, my confusion running radiant.
I discovered that irradiation has also been widely used on fruits, vegetables, grains and spices since the time Dad filled up my childhood basement bomb shelter with Campbell’s thermally sterilized Armageddon Tomato comestible soup.
My disheartened heart was complete when I visited the website maintained by the St. Mary’s High School physics students in Manhasset, New York. There, they suggested the three optimum protections against an overexposure to gamma rays:
- A one-quarter inch thick sheet of lead.
- A one-half inch thick sheet of iron.
- Four inches of water.
So, last night I dreamed I was a kiddie pool submarine captain under siege from glowing, invisible, meaty sea monsters and reduced to a tomato can torpedo fertilizer defense.
Is it spring yet?
Author and syndicated humor columnist B. Elwin Sherman writes from Bethlehem, NH. His new book, “Walk Tall and Carry a Big Watering Can”, is scheduled for publication soon by Plaidswede Publishing.