When people grew ill from E coli bacteria in hamburgers recently, the first question that popped into my paranoid mind was “Who shit in them burgers?”– because e coli comes from, uh, fecal matter.

Why? A vegetarian conspiracy to scare people away from meat? A take-no-prisoners war between burger franchises? Just pure meanness?

Oddly enough, the business that stands to benefit most from this tragedy is the food radiation business. Some companies have developed a way to “sterilize” food by zapping it with gamma rays from Cobalt 60 in order to kill bacteria in the food. They’ve already got permission from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to zap fruit, vegetables, spices, chicken, and pork, but it hasn’t caught on, and is made more difficult to accept because irradiated food has to be labeled as irradiated. Problem is, lots of consumers are as uncomfortable with radiated food as they are excrement- tainted food. It the radiation people have their way, we could end up with both: have your caca and eat it too. The processing could be sloppy and dirty, but since the final nuke job keeps the germs from growing, sanitation isn’t as critical. In fact, the filthier the process, the more need there is for radiation.

The radiation process doesn’t make the food itself radioactive, and there is no proven effect — so far — on nutrition or food safety, but folks are understandably uncomfortable. They’ve been burned before by the promise of a better living through radiation: nuclear power plants turned out to be a dangerous and expensive proposition, and it’s hard to figure where to dump their nuclear waste; then there are the high cancer rates around atomic test sites, carcinogenic radioactive fallout from bomb tests, the memory of the Cold War itself with its missile silos and radioactive fallout shelters, and the images of the gruesome deaths by radiation poisoning of the victims of the atomic bombs the U. S. government exploded on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since the end of the Cold War, people have become less worried about the specter of radiation. All those atomic missiles and submarines and bombers were a constant ominous reminder, with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl dramatically punctuating the message. It’s not that there’s LESS nuclear danger now, what with decaying power plants and the decrepit Russian nuclear subs and nuclear material sold on the black market, and vast radiating arsenals in both the U.S. and Russia that have to be transported and stored somewhere — Lord knows where, for a hundred thousand years or so. All this seems somehow distant, compared to the nuclear alarms of the past, and this changed situation maybe makes radiation more acceptable to some people.

Still, it just don’t set right to have so many queasy associations with your food. Fears and taboos about food are deeply rooted in the human brain, and for good reason, because they’re rooted in a very basic survival instinct, “food bad, will kill.” Even animals have food taboos. They’ll try a tiny bit of an unfamiliar food, and if it makes them sick, they’ll avoid it.

One way to break down this fear is to replace it with a more immediate, bone-chilling fear. And what’s a better candidate than good old germs. Germs, as invisible and insidious as radiation, and as deadly. In the past few months, there’s been so much talk about E coli and Salmonella you’d think everybody had a degree in bacteriology. You couldn’t even eat your turkey in peace this past Thanksgiving because the news was full of warnings about that sinister Salmonella. This is why the timing for the burger outbreak couldn’t have been better. A petition to make it legal to add beef to the radioactive shopping list had been filed by Isomedix, a New Jersey company, and a few months ago Congress ordered the FDA to make a decision in 60 days.

Journalists have been helping to promote radiation. The lead in the Los Angeles Times back in 1998, for example, goes “At a time when Americans are increasingly anxious about the safety of the food they eat, the FDA approved the controversial practice.” To calm lingering fears of radiation, they assure us that “Studies show that the practice of using radiation to destroy food borne microorganisms is safe and does not change food …or cause it to become less nutritious.”

Whoa there. This alone ought to send up red flags flapping from cattle country to supermarket. How many times before have we been assured that a new technology was safe? Pesticide and herbicides were safe, and thousands of chemicals and food dyes and hair dyes and additives were safe, at least until they were shown to cause cancer, immune system disorders, allergies, and assorted illnesses, while at the same time harm the environment. Common sense alone dictates caution. And why should we put our food supply at the mercy of the nuclear industry anyhow? Will allowing radiated food make us more nuclear-friendly, so that we’ll go back to building nuclear plants? Lots to think about here. What’s the rush, anyhow?

Well, one word: PROFITS. Food radiation is a classic example of the profiteering that goes on in the food system. Instead of paying reliable workers decent wages to keep the plants clean, the food business will be able to cut labor.

This is not surprising, because he meat packing business has become notoriously anti-union to drive wages down — in some places packing plants now have to use undocumented workers to do the work because the local people won’t work for substandard pay.

The food business is one of the most unfair in the country, one which has had tremendous success in increasing its profits while sharing less and less with the people who toil to produce the food. Whether you look at the history of the brutal exploitation of the farmworkers in the fields of California, or the fact that millions of small farmers in the have been Midwest put out of business, the story is basically the same: a smaller and smaller share of the food dollar goes to the people who actually produce the food. A bushel of corn sells for the same price as it did 40 years ago. Farm workers aren’t even covered by national labor relations laws, and according to government studies 800,000 of the 2 million farm laborers are undocumented immigrants, which means that their labor can be had at the lowest possible price, and that in some respects they have weaker legal rights than the animals they feed and slaughter.

Notice how the food establishment plays into this. In the article cited above, for example, a food safety expert at Iowa State University said that irradiation would probably add “3 to 6 cents to the cost of a pound of hamburger,” but he shrugged this off as “not an undue burden.” But if farmers or farm laborers or packing plant workers demanded an across- the-board increase of this magnitude, I can guarantee you there would be an uproar. The meat packers would be whining that these demands would put them out of business. Then they’d threaten to move the plants to Alabama or Arkansas or Burma some other scab-friendly jurisdiction. But in this situation, the packing plant can cut labor costs, pass the cost of radiation on to the consumer, and let the high-tech radiation company make a profit.

The packaging and the radiating are just another way to divert food dollars from those who work to another profit center. The sad thing is that the sweat and risk and low pay of those who work in the food production industry is completely concealed from consumers, who are being set up to pay the extra money, just as they’ve been set up in the past.

Worse yet, while consumers pay more, at the behest of this expert, workers get less, the world is made safer for the nuclear industry — if our entire food supply comes to depend on these guys, once we partake in the great sacrament of irradiation every time we eat, there’s no telling what they might be able to sell us in addition to nuclear power plants: nuclear home- defense systems? Nuclear-powered toys? “Aw, Mom, it’s just a low dose.”