It was public relations of the highest order: a scientist and former governor endorsing the nation's first commercial food irradiation plant.
The publicity couldn't have come at a better time. Six weeks after Polk County's plant opened, most area supermarkets still are not carrying irradiated food.
"Ask yourself what the fear is, and is there any basis for it?" Dixy Lee Ray urged consumers who fear irradiation, which uses gamma rays to kill the bacteria that cause spoilage and food poisoning.
"In science, beliefs don't count," said Ray, former governor of Washington and author of the book Trashing the Planet. "There are still people who believe the Earth is flat."
Ray was chair of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from 1973 to 1975. In that job, she issued approvals for the continued study of irradiation.
Nearly two decades later, consumers are getting their first taste of retail, irradiated foods, but in small portions.
Vindicator's Polk County plant received its state operating license in December over strong resistance from anti-irradiation groups. Company officials say they have customers from across the country, but they have refused consistently to identify them.
One grocer in North Miami Beach started selling irradiated strawberries three weeks ago and reported brisk sales, despite picketing by the anti-irradiation group Food & Water.
Locally, irradiated food is difficult, if not impossible, to find.
Spokesmen for the Winn Dixie, Publix, Kash n' Karry, Albertsons, Food Lion and Jewel Osco chains all said Wednesday that they do not carry irradiated foods, and most said they do not know when they might start.
Vindicator's supporters say there is plenty of demand from consumers, and that the resistance is coming from the media and the activists. "If we can put it on the shelves, the public will buy it," said Walter Harkala, a major Vindicator stockholder.
Harkala said he mentioned irradiation in a local supermarket and that a firefighter, overhearing the conversation, said he wanted irradiated strawberries.
"I think that's a typical response," Harkala said.
Food & Water has vowed to follow trucks that leave Vindicator and to picket wherever irradiated foods are sold. Though federal officials say irradiation is safe, Food & Water says the technology has not been tested thoroughly enough.
Food & Water director Michael Colby called Ray's plant visit "an act of desperation," and accused the company of "bringing in a hired gun to promote a potentially toxic technology."
"I also find it ironic that she is a former governor of Washington state, one of the most nuclear-polluted states in the nation," Colby said, referring to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, where tanks of radioactive waste have leaked material into the ground.
Ray said that stories about the dangers from the Hanford site are "vastly exaggerated." She said she was not paid for her visit to Vindicator, although Consumer Alert, a group that supports irradiation, did pay for her plane ticket from Miami to Tampa.
"I am here because I am a scientist and because I worry a great deal about food poisoning," Ray said. "And as a scientist, I get very upset when I see a misuse of science."