The growing controversy over food irradiation
Melissa Knopper, E/The Environmental Magazine
Over the past several years, a series of highly
publicized recalls have sent panicky consumers running to the fridge to check for tainted meat.
It started in 1998 when Sara Lee recalled millions
of pounds of hot dogs and deli meat after 21 people died in a Listeria outbreak from a processing plant in Michigan.
Then, in 2000, a three-year-old Milwaukee girl
died after eating watermelon splashed with E. coli 0157:H7 (the most deadly form) at a Sizzler restaurant. Federal investigators
traced the E. coli, which made 600 other people sick, to a Colorado Excel meat plant. Most recently in the second-largest
meat recall in U.S. history ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef contaminated
with E. coli that made 17 people sick in Colorado.
As these outbreaks continue to generate publicity,
people are looking for ways to protect themselves from gaps in the countrys meat inspection system. Food irradiation an unpopular
option in the past is starting to gain more acceptance. In fact, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering
proposals to expand the number of foods that could be irradiated. The food industry already irradiates raw meat and spices;
soon, the government may permit irradiated processed meats and imported produce. While it has won some support, food irradiation
also generates fiery opposition. As more stores offer irradiated products, the issue is generating nearly as much controversy
as genetically engineered foods.
Many scientific organizations, including the
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and the American Medical Association, endorse
food irradiation. The FDA has tested the safety of irradiated foods in both animals and humans, and NASA originally used irradiation
to protect the meals astronauts ate in space.
Ricardo Molins, a microbiologist and irradiation
expert with the National Academy of Sciences, believes irradiation is a safe and effective way to reduce foodborne illness.
"We dont live in a sterile world; mud and manure could end up in your hamburger," Molins said. "If people dont like to eat
their hamburgers well done, they should buy irradiated meat."
Irradiation prevents food poisoning by killing
harmful bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Listeria. When high-energy beams of radiation pass through the food, it
damages the DNA of these microorganisms, reducing the potential for disease. Irradiation will not eliminate viruses and prions,
which are the infectious proteins that cause mad cow disease. The process changes some foods, especially those that have a
high fat content. Irradiated eggs become runny, and some meats develop an unpleasant odor and taste.
An Industry Cheers
Food industry groups, such as the Grocery Manufacturers
of America and the American Meat Institute, are in favor of irradiation. While surveys show consumers tend to be wary of irradiated
foods, some stores already sell them. East Coast grocery chain Wegmans started to aggressively market its own brand of irradiated
hamburger last summer.
"E. coli 0157:H7 is especially dangerous to young
children, elderly people, and anyone with a compromised immune system," said Wegmans spokesperson Joanne Colleluori. "This
product gives our customers peace of mind."
Irradiation opponents, however, argue it could
give the meat industry an excuse to look the other way instead of cleaning up flaws in the system that led to the recent outbreaks
of foodborne illnesses. People are getting sick because of the increase in factory farms where cattle are crowded into small
pens, sleeping in their own waste, said Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizens critical mass energy and environment
Instead of grazing on their natural diet of grass,
the cows eat grain-based foods, which cause E. coli to flourish in their digestive tracts. The animals move through the slaughter
lines so quickly, mistakes cause fecal matter to contaminate the meat, she added. "The meat industry has created a system
that makes it difficult to produce a wholesome product," Lovera said. "They see irradiation as a quick fix."
But Matt Baun, a U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) spokesperson, said, "There isnt going to be any lessening of sanitation in these plants as a result of irradiation.
We have 7,500 inspectors, and they are in every plant every hour."
The USDA will ask meat plants to use additional
techniques to kill pathogens, such as steam pasteurization. If consumers want to be sure theyre protected from E. coli, however,
Baun said its important to make sure they cook beef at 160-degrees Fahrenheit.
Whats in Our Food?
Consumer advocates are also concerned about labeling.
Congress recently passed a measure as part of U.S. Senator Tom Harkins (D-Iowa) farm bill that would allow grocery stores
to label irradiated products as being treated with "electronic pasteurization."
Groups like Public Citizen, the Center for Science
in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Organic Consumers Association, and Food and Water feel this term is misleading and confusing.
Consumers must be vigilant because the FDAs labeling rules for irradiated foods have serious loopholes, Lovera said.
For example, restaurants, schools, and hospitals
are not required to notify the public if they are serving irradiated foods. Similarly, a company could make applesauce with
irradiated apples but would not have to disclose that on the list of ingredients.
"Were encouraging people to contact big food
companies like Tyson, Kraft, and Hormel and tell them they dont want irradiated foods," said Danila Oder of the Minnesota-based
Organic Consumers Union. Several groups are organizing letter-writing campaigns to oppose the FDA labeling changes.
And the Empire State Consumer Association in
New York has been meeting with Wegmans and local school officials to call
for a ban on irradiated products. The group encourages consumers to instead buy from local farm markets, community-supported
agriculture programs, and food co-ops.
Activists from Public Citizen believe the government
needs to do more long-term studies of the potential health risks of a steady diet of irradiated food. They point to the vitamin
loss that occurs in some irradiated foods.
Scientists also have identified a new class of
chemicals, called cyclobutanones, which only occur in irradiated foods. A German study suggests these compounds could accelerate
the growth of cancer in humans. While Public Citizen believes the study has merit, other scientists including FDA investigators
have not been able to replicate the results.
Meanwhile, activists at the Vermont-based Food
and Water are raising questions about the potential for nuclear accidents at irradiation facilities. There already have been
injuries and deaths when radioactive materials are mishandled at food irradiation plants, said Executive Director Michael
Colby. And the possibility of a terrorist threat at these facilities is even scarier, Colby said. He argues that its safer
to keep dangerous materials in one guarded storage bunker.
Food and Waters grassroots campaign also raises
awareness about the corporate politics behind the recent push to use irradiation for food safety. "From the beginning, irradiation
has been an attempt to use up nuclear waste products and to put a smiley face on all things nuclear," Colby said.
In her new book, Is Our Food Safe? A Consumers Guide to Protecting Your Health and the Environment, CSPI Director of Food
Safety Caroline Smith DeWaal concluded the benefits of irradiation outweigh the risks, although she agrees on the need for
more studies on long-term health effects. As long as packaging is clear and understandable, DeWaal believes consumers should
have the opportunity to buy irradiated food if they want it. "The people who prefer natural foods probably are going to avoid
irradiated food; it really is an issue of consumer choice," she said. "For many consumers, the ideal solution is to eat less
meat and to avoid ground beef because its one of the most risky foods."
Melissa Knopper is a Denver-based journalist
specializing in health and science topics.