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Opinion: Food Irradiation Threatens Public Health, National Security

By Samuel Epstein, M.D.

CHICAGO, Illinois, March 8, 2002 (ENS) - Iowa Senator Tom Harkin's last minute provisions in the Senate farm bill allowing irradiated beef to be labelled "pasteurized," instead of the Food and Drug Administration's small print "treated by irradiation" label, is a surprising denial of consumers' fundamental right-to-know.

Consumers are wary of irradiated food, and with good reason even if they don't understand the dangers involved. Irradiated meat is a very different product from cooked meat. Irrespective of whether radiated by radioactive cobalt pellets or rods, X-ray machines or electron beams, the current permissible radiation dosage is about 200 million times greater than a chest X-ray.

facility

A technician removes bundles of cobalt-60 from shipping containers and dismantles them for storage until they are transferred to adjacent processing cells. (Photo courtesy Mechanical Engineering)
As well documented since the 1960s, these massive doses of ionizing radiation produce profound chemical changes in meat. These include elevated levels of the carcinogenic chemical benzene, and also the production of unique new chemicals, known as radiolytic products, some of which have been implicated as carcinogenic.

Additionally, irradiated food has been shown to induce genetic damage in a wide range of studies, including tests on malnourished children by India's National Institute of Nutrition.

Of particular concern in this regard, are a group of readily detectable unique chemicals known as cyclobutanones which have recently been shown to cause chromosomal damage in intestinal cells of rats and humans.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have ignored the strong evidence on the cancer and genetic risks of irradiated food. Instead, they have relied on a group of five studies, selected from a total of over 400 studies prior to 1980, on which their current claims of safety are based.

The FDA has persisted in these claims even though its own expert Irradiated Food Committee warned that the tests are grossly flawed and inadequate.

Furthermore, as admitted by USDA's Agricultural Research Service, irradiation results in major losses of vitamins, particularly A, C, E and the B complex. These losses are substantially increased by cooking, resulting in empty calorie food, a concern of major importance for the malnourished. Radiation has also been used to clean up food unfit for human consumption, such as spoiled fish, by killing odorous contaminating bacteria.

steak While the USDA is actively supporting meat and poultry radiation, it has been moving to deregulate and privatize the industry by promoting self-policing programs. Irradiation is also aggressively promoted by the Department of Energy's Byproducts Utilization Program to reduce disposal costs of spent military and civilian nuclear fuel by providing a commercial market for nuclear wastes.

Food irradiation plants pose grave dangers to national security. They are relatively small, unregulated, and unlikely to be secure. As such, they are highly vulnerable to sabotage.

Of particular current concern are terrorist attacks to steal radioactive cobalt pellets. These could be mixed with conventional explosives to produce so-called "dirty bombs," whose effects could be devastating.

These plants pose additional dangers to local communities by generating high levels of ozone, a very toxic atmospheric pollutant when it is close to ground level instead of high in the stratosphere where it protects the Earth from ultraviolet radiation.

Not surprisingly, the focus of the radiation and agribusiness industries has been directed to the lucrative clean up of contaminated food, rather than preventing contamination at its source. However, bacterial food poisoning, particularly with E.coli O157, which can be dangerous and lethal to young children, can be largely prevented by long overdue improved sanitation, apart from thorough cooking of meat.

Sanitation in cattle feedlots, including reducing overcrowding, drinking water disinfection and fly control, would drastically reduce cattle infection rates.

Moreover, O157 infection rates could be virtually eliminated by feeding hay seven days prior to slaughter, which the industry is unwilling to do because of higher costs. Sanitation would also prevent drinking water contamination from feedlot run off, incriminated in recent outbreaks of O157 poisoning; this would remain a continuing threat even if all meat were irradiated.

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Steers awaiting slaughter (Photo courtesy Capitol Land & Livestock Co.)
Pre-slaughter and post-evisceration sanitation at meat packing plants are also highly effective for reducing carcass contamination rates. Practical techniques are available for rapid individual or pooled carcasses for fecal and bacterial contamination.

The expense of producing sanitary meat would be trivial compared to the high costs of irradiation, which would be passed on to consumers, apart from assuring its wholesomeness and safety, besides preventing nuclear accidents and terrorism.

Rather than sanitizing the label in response to special interests, Congress should focus on sanitation, not irradiation of the nation's food supply.

For further information on food irradiation, see the recently published article "Preventing Pathogenic Food Poisoning: Sanitation, Not Irradiation," endorsed by over 20 leading international experts, "International Journal of Health Services," volume 31(1):187-192, 2001.

{Dr. Samuel Epstein is Professor Emeritus Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, and Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition}



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