Meat Irradiation Gets the Green Light, But is It Safe?
Would you eat a fast-food burger that had been “nuked”—exposed to nuclear radiation in order to kill pathogens such as salmonella? Maybe you just did. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given the green light to the irradiation of beef and other meat products. The FDA claims the technology is safe and effective, but critics charge it is spectacularly dangerous.
Why irradiate? The main concern is the rapid increase in microbiological hazards, especially in meat. There are up to 33 million cases of food-related illnesses each year, and 9,000 deaths. Food poisoning caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (better known as E.coli) affects up to 20,000 people annually.
There are two major types of food irradiation: electron beam, which uses a high-speed “gun” to bombard foods with electrons; and nuclear, which is favored by the nuclear power industry because it a) provides a use for spent nuclear fuel and b) uses nuclear reactors to manufacture the necessary cobalt-60. Electron beam radiation is not in itself environmentally hazardous, but critics say it is even more hazardous to the food supply than the nuclear variant.
While a label disclosing the irradiation treatment is required for meat products purchased in a store, labeling isn't required for foods used as ingredients in a product—flour in bread, for example—or for foods served by restaurants and school lunch programs.
The animal feeding studies first used to evaluate the safety of food irradiation were inadequate to assure there will not be any long-term ill health effects, says Dr. Marcia van Gemert, a toxicologist and chair of the FDA committee that investigated 441 irradiation studies before the approval of the process for poultry and some other foods in 1982. Gemert says she is not for or against food irradiation, but believes politics—not good science—was the basis for its acceptance.
The first food approved for irradiation was wheat and wheat powder in 1963, and meats prepared for NASA astronauts were routinely sterilized with radiation beginning in the early 1970s. But these early experiments never affected consumer products. The FDA admits that no more animal feeding studies have been done since 1982, but claims they aren't needed because irradiation has a trivial effect on food. “Conducting animal feeding studies would be waste of time and effort,” says Dr. George Pauli, director of the FDA Division of Product Policy. “One could predict what would occur better than one could determine by doing a study with animals.”
Pauli says studies evaluated in 1982 that suggested there might be ill effects from irradiation were flawed, and that the FDA has concluded there were no toxic effects that could be attributed to irradiation. “We tried to look at the totality of evidence to see, 'Is there any pattern here?'” Pauli says. “When you start getting dozens of studies adding up to thousands of animals and the only thing you can see is that no one has found a toxic effect due to irradiation, then your assurance of safety becomes stronger.”
Are We Guinea Pigs?
Opponents of irradiation disagree. “We are about to have a huge experiment at your local McDonald's and Burger King, so why bother with animal studies?” says Michael Colby, executive director of Food & Water Inc., a consumer advocacy group based in Vermont. “The trouble is the government won't go to the trouble of having control and experimental groups. We are all subjects of the experiment.” Colby's advice to consumers is to boycott all forms of non-organic meat and poultry, and says that unless consumers purchase organically grown products, they won't know if the meat has been exposed to radiation or not.
“If you don't know where your food comes from, you are playing Russian roulette with your meal,” Colby says. “You aren't going to know if you buy irradiated food in restaurants or if your child eats irradiated food for school lunch. No labeling is required for any processed food that contains irradiated ingredients, even if you are talking about the chicken in chicken soup. These loopholes are a result of extensive corporate lobbying to fool consumers and jump start a very dubious technology.”
Besides creating toxic byproducts such as formaldehyde and benzene, irradiation can create some “unique radiolytic products,” chemicals that haven't even been identified or tested for toxicity, says Dr. John W. Gofman of the University of California at Berkeley.
“What we do know with certainty is that irradiation causes a host of unnatural and sometimes unidentifiable chemicals to be formed within the irradiated foods,” Gofman says. “Our ignorance about these foreign compounds makes it simply a fraud to tell the public that 'we know' irradiated foods would be safe to eat. It is dishonorable to trick people into buying irradiated foods.”
Pauli says chemical change does take place when products are irradiated, but that the levels of toxins like benzene are so low as to be of no concern. Pauli also denies there is any reason for concern about food irradiation destroying essential vitamins and minerals.
But the Organic Consumers Association claims that, by releasing molecular material called free radicals, irradiation may destroy as much as 80 percent of such important vitamins as A, C, E, K and B “depending on the dose of irradiation and the length of storage time.” The group charges that irradiation also deactivates the natural digestive enzymes found in raw food, and encourages fats to turn rancid.
Hell No, We Won't Glow!
Another issue that has been raised is the safety of irradiation facilities. Colby says that workers in irradiation plants risk exposure to large doses of radiation due to equipment failure, leaks and other problems. In 1998, there was a radioactivity release into the water storage pool at Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. in Decatur, Georgia. Taxpayers paid for a $30 million cleanup in the case.
Pauli responds that it is unfair to equate that accident with an unsafe record for the industry. “What I have seen is that the safety record is good,” Pauli says. “These are heavily regulated facilities. If anything goes wrong, measures are taken to remedy that.”
Other concerns are that irradiation kills beneficial micro-organisms as well as the harmful ones, and that use of the technology could lead to the development of radiation- and antiobiotic-resistant bacteria.
In addition, efforts are being made to change the labeling requirements to improve acceptance by consumers. “Even with all loopholes that exist, they say the labels are too cumbersome and too much like a warning,” Colby says. “They want to change the name of the technology. One suggestion is to call it 'cold pasteurization' and include a positive statement on the label that says things like 'Treated to promote health'.”
Irradiation hasn't taken off in the poultry industry, where it has been allowed for a longer period of time. Irradiated fr
uit, including strawberries, apples, grapefruit and juice oranges, have been available sporadically in test markets. Even the pro-industry American Dietetic Association, which claims that consumers prefer the taste of “nuked” meat and produce, admits, “Despite repeated endorsements and regulatory approval, irradiated foods are not widely available in the U.S.” Colby says that is because of concerns about market acceptability. “They're trying to hide the fact that they are using this technology,” Colby says. “And unless they can get away with selling irradiated products without informing consumers, it is next to impossible to sell.”
BECKY GILLETTE is a Mississippi-based freelance writer on health topics.