Sam R. Whitney doesn't seem the revolutionary type. But at 67, the self-made millionaire is gearing up to open a food-irradiating plant in tiny Mulberry, Fla. It will treat fruits and vegetables with radiation, killing bacteria without making the food radioactive, so that "consumers don't have to guess what foods are safe," Whitney says.

Set to open this month, Whitney's Vindicator Inc. would be the nation's first commercial food irradiator--and it's already generating questions. Among them: Is irradiating food a good way to kill bacteria and, in some cases, prolong shelf life? Is it cancer-causing? And even if it's safe, will consumers bite?

NUKED CUKES? The Food & Drug Administration first approved irradiation for some foods in 1963. Since then, it has added many others to the list (table). Yet little irradiated food is sold, for fear of a consumer backlash. Currently, for instance, New York, New Jersey, and Maine prohibit the sale of such products.

Still, Whitney thinks the time is ripe for irradiation. He's betting that recent publicity over salmonella poisoning from poultry will make consumers receptive. Agriculture Dept. studies show that zapping contaminated chicken with gamma rays destroys most salmonella. And if it extends shelf life, irradiation might open new markets for produce. Says Carl Grooms, a Plant City (Fla.) strawberry grower: "If we can get the same quality of berry to downtown London as to downtown Lakeland, that's a great market."

Whitney, who made his fortune hauling phosphate, hooked up with a group of Florida citrus and produce growers five years ago. Then last April, Vindicator raised $2.7 million in a penny-stock offering. It also has gotten no-interest financing from Nordion International, the Canadian supplier of Vindicator's irradiation equipment. Whitney says Vindicator has contracts with several strawberry growers and is talking with poultry companies--though he won't say which ones.

That's largely because he's afraid opponents will scare off potential clients. If consumer groups can't keep Vindicator from operating, they've promised to boycott Florida produce. Whitney's leading foe may be Food & Water Inc., a group started in 1986 by a New Jersey osteopath, Walter Burnstein, to block irradiation. With backing from several contributors, including Barbra Streisand, it already has begun to air radio spots in Florida to work up opposition to the plant. "We have letters from consumer groups in Asia and Europe, and they won't buy anything from Florida," says Burnstein.

Similar threats in 1987 helped scuttle plans by Hawaii and the Energy Dept. to build an irradiator to kill fruit-fly larvae in papayas, though Energy is building two demonstration plants, one in Florida. Protests also killed plans for irradiation plants in Alaska and Arizona. Opponents charge that some of the "radiolytic products" formed when radiation zips through food may cause cancer. Foes also point out that the process destroys nutrients such as thiamine and vitamin E, and that there are other ways to kill salmonella, such as cooking and processing food more carefully.

SERIOUS HAZARD? Boosters counter that there's a dearth of scientific proof in hundreds of studies that irradiation causes cancer. They add that cooking and microwaving creates an identical effect. In fact, an FDA committee concluded in 1980 that 90% of radiolytic substances are found in nonirradiated food.

Dangerous or no, the public may not be ready for the process. So, food companies won't dispute the claims of such groups as Food & Water, "even if it is misinformation," says Michelle Spring, spokesperson for the National Food Processors Assn. "Consumers don't want it, that's all there is to it," says Marie Beckey, a spokesperson for Perdue Farms Inc., which eschews irradiation.

Others hope to change consumers' minds. John Block, executive director of the National Grocery Wholesalers, points to microwave cooking, which once frightened consumers. Now, he notes, "people are zapping their food every night." For Whitney to succeed, he'll need just such a change of heart.

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