Zap! The Growing Controversy over Food Irradiation

Over the past several years, a series of highly publicized recalls have sent panicky consumers running to the fridge to check for tainted meat. In 1998, Sara Lee recalled millions of pounds of hot dogs and deli meat after 21 people died in a Listeria outbreak from a Michigan processing plant. 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, ConAgra recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef contaminated with E. coli, and a major Listeria outbreak occurred in Pennsylvania.

As these incidents continue to generate publicity, people are looking for ways to protect themselves from gaps in the country’s meat inspection system. Food irradiation—unpopular in the past—is starting to gain more acceptance. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering proposals to expand the number of foods that could be irradiated from just raw meat and spices to also include processed meats and imported produce. As more stores offer irradiated products, the issue is also generating some fiery opposition.

Scientific Support

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 astronauts" meals. 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 don’t live in a sterile world—mud and manure could end up in your hamburger," Molins says.

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. 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 Wegman’s started to aggressively market its own brand of irradiated hamburger last summer. "E. coli 0157:H7 is especially dangerous to young children, the elderly and the immuno-compromised," says Wegman’s 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. People are getting sick because of the increase in factory farms where cattle are crowded into small pens, sleeping in their own waste, says Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen’s critical mass energy and environment program. 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 adds.

But Matt Baun, a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spokesperson, says, "There isn’t going to be any lessening of sanitation as a result of irradiation." The USDA will ask meat plants to use additional techniques to kill pathogens, such as steam pasteurization. If consumers want to be sure they’re protected from E. coli, however, Baun says they should cook beef at 160-degrees Fahrenheit.

What’s in Our Food?

Consumer advocates are also concerned about labeling. Congress recently passed a bill that would allow stores to label irradiated products as being treated with "electronic pasteurization." Groups like Public Citizen, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Organic Consumers Association feel this term is misleading.

The FDA’s labeling rules for irradiated foods have serious loopholes, Lovera says. 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.

"We’re encouraging people to tell food companies they don’t want irradiated foods," says Danila Oder of the Organic Consumers Union. Several groups are organizing letter-writing campaigns to oppose the labeling changes. And New York’s Empire State Consumer Association has been meeting with Wegman’s and school officials to call for a ban on irradiated foods. The group encourages consumers to instead buy from farm markets, community-supported agriculture programs and co-ops.

Public Citizen believes the government needs to do more long-term studies on the health effects 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.

Activists at the Vermont-based Food and Water raise further questions. There already have been injuries and deaths when radioactive materials are mishandled at food irradiation plants, says Executive Director Michael Colby. And the possibility of a terrorist threat at these facilities is even scarier, Colby says. He adds, "From the beginning, irradiation has been an attempt to put a smiley face on all things nuclear."

In her new book, Is Our Food Safe? 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 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," she says. "For many consumers, the ideal solution is to eat less meat, and to avoid ground beef because it’s one of the most risky foods."

MELISSA KNOPPER is a Denver-based health and science journalist.