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Food irradiation: zapping our troubles away?

Sam Whitney wants to make your chicken clean...very clean.

If the government gives him the go-ahead, the Florida entrepreneur is prepared to take 300 million pounds a year of thighs and drumsticks, breasts and wings, and bombard each piece with radiation equal to more than 30 million chest X-rays.

"People are dying from foodborne disease," says Whitney. "I want to see poultry safe to eat."

But his dream is on hold. The government has yet to approve poultry irradiation, even though the FDA says that the process is safe.

So, these days, the would-be food-irradiation king is reduced to zapping fruit. Earlier this year, Whitney's Vindicator in Mulberry, Florida shipped its first 1,000 pints of irradiated strawberries to grocery stores in Florida, Virgnia, and Chicago.

As you listen to the debate unleashed by Whitney's straberries, keep this in mind: Food irradiation is 1) not as horrible as its critics charge, 2) not the godsend that its proponents claim, and 3) not the way to solve our food-safety problems.

First things first: Irradiated food is not radioactive. Not even its fiercest critics charge that.

But that doesn't mean irradiation isn't deadly. When you pass food through a chamber contianing rods of radioactive cobalt-60 or cesium-137, it is bombarded with gamma rays. They make small work of most bacteria, insects, and molds.

While irradiated food may not glow in the dark, chances are it contains tiny amounts of a few unsavory chemicals...and lower levels of more than a few nutrients.

The Zap Imperative. "Food irradiation holds great promise in the control of foodborne diseases such as salmonellosis.... It can also extend the shelf-life of many foods at competitive costs while offering an alternative to the use of fumigants and chemicals, many of which leave residues."

It's hard to argue with Nordion International, the Canadian company that designs irradiation plants and provides most of the cobalt-60 that is used in them.

By the time the chicken for tonight's dinner leaves the processing plant, chances are it's infested with Salmonella and Campylobacter bacteria. If you don't handle or prepare that chicken properly, you could be one of the millions of people each year who suffer from food poisoning.

That's if you're lucky. Several thousand people a year aren't. They die from salmonellosis or campylobacteriosis. Irradiation would zap that risk--and many others--into oblivion.

For fruits and vegetables, it would eliminate the need to apply pesticides--some of which could increase our cancer risk--at the packaging plant. For pork, it would get rid of Toxoplasma gondii, which can cause mental retardation in fetuses. In beef, it would mean no more E. coli 0157:H7, which is the primary cause of kidney failure in children.

Sound terrific? Not to everyone. Irradiation, critics maintain, simply replaces an old batch of risks with new ones.

"It many cause bigger problems," says Walter Burnstein, an osteopath who is president of Food & Water, Inc., an advocacy group that was formed in 1986 to fight food irradiation.

Radiolytic Wonderland. Does irradiation make food less safe to eat? No one knows for sure, but there are hints of a problem.

When a food is bombarded with powerful gamma rays, some of its molecules are broken up and converted to potentially dangerous free radicals and other "radiolytic" products. Analyses of irradiated food have uncovered minuscule amounts of these chemicals, some of which--like benzene--cause cancer.

But ordinary cooking can also alter a food's chemical composition.

"The effect of irradiation at the doses we recommended was so small and similar to approved processes like cooking [that] it would be a waste of money to do further testing," says the Food and Drug Administration's George Pauli.

There are two problems with that.

Food cannot be tested to determine how much radiation it was treated with. So it would be impossible to detect illegally high doses--far above those approved by the FDA.

Even more disturbing are several animal and human studies that raise troubling questions that may have been swept under the rug in the lax regulatory environment of the Reagan years.

It's impossible to test the safety of irradiated foods the same way additives are tested. You just can't feed a mouse or rat hundreds of times more irradiated food than a person might consume.

Nevertheless, one study conducted by Ralston Scientific Services for the U.S. Army and the USDA found that mice fed a diet rich in irradiated chicken died earlier and had higher incidences of several tumors. [1]

"While there is no evidence of a highly toxic effect," the researchers concluded, "the preponderance of evidence suggests some degree of toxicity was present." The USDA and the FDA disputed the conclusion, but their arguments are not persuasive.

There are few tests of irradiated foods on humans.

One Indian study found chromosomal abnormalities in five malnourished boys who were fed freshly irradiated wheat. [2,3] The study was small, though, and no one has since tested freshly irradiated food on humans.

Until we have more definitive evidence, the government should not allow foods to be irradiated.

Counting Vitacuries. Former FDA commissioner Frank Young has said that irradiated foods are "indistinguishable" with respect to nutritional quality. Yet irradiation can clearly affect nutrients.

One Japanese study showed that a typical dose of irradiation reduced the vitamin C content of potatoes by almost 50 per cent. [4] In cooked pork, a dose equal to one third the level permitted by the FDA reduced thiamin levels by 17 percent. [4] And a normal dose of irradiation reduced the thiamin level of chicken breasts by nine percent. [5] Vitamin E and polyunsaturated fats are also affected. [4]

Those losses wouldn't mean too much for someone who ate an occasional irradiated food. But people who diets were based largely on irradiated foods could be in trouble.

And that could turn out to include you. As long ago as 1980, the FDA estimated that as much as 40 percent of our diet might ultimately be irradiated.

Spare the Rod. Even if irradiated food were perfectly safe, irradiation plants would pose a hazard for workers and for local communities.

The industry says it is aware of the dangers and maintains that it protects workers with an elaborate system of radiation detectors, alarms, locks, and other safety devices.

Robert Lalonde, who works for Canadian cobalt-producer Nordion International, says that somebody at the Florida Vindicator plant "would have to bypass about twenty safety systems, rip out wires, chop through a door, and jump photo switches" before approaching the cobalt.

Maybe. Maybe not.

In 1986, Martin Welt was forced out of his job as chairman of Radiation Technology, Inc., a company that sterilizes surgical equipment, cosmetics, and spices, after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission charged that he had ordered that the lock system designed to protect workers at his plant "be by-passed."

In 1974, a worker at Isomedix, a Hanover, New Jersey, company that sterilizes medical equipment, was exposed to a potentially lethal dose of radiation when he inadvertently entered a chamber that contained unshielded cobalt-60.

Truckin' Those Rads. One food irradiator in Florida might be tolerable. But the gleam in the eyes of irradiation advocates hints that they envision hundreds of plants dotting the landscape.

It's not too hard to conjure up an irradiation facility in every chicken- and hog-processing plant, and even portable unit haulted out to fields in trucks.

Nordion International claims that its containers "have undergone rigorous testing" and that it has had "trouble-free experience transporting radioactive sources" since it began shipping cobalt-60 in the 1950s.

But how do you prevent an earthquake? Or a deranged worker or bomb-throwing saboteur? Or a freight train hitting a truck carrying radioactive material? The more radioactive material we use, the greater the risk.

Rating Irradiation. Because of the potential risks, irradiation should be used only if it is the best way to solve a major health problem. In other words: Do we really need to use radiation to kill the bacteria on chicken or the flies on fruit?

The glib answer is "yes." By irradiating chicken we could save hundreds--perhaps thousands--of lives, prevent millions of food-poisoning illnesses, and keep millions of dollars of medical expenses in consumers' pockets.

But where do most of the harmful bacteria come from? It's contaminated feed, crowded growing conditions, and filthy, inadequately inspected packing plants. So irradiation becomes a quick fix--a way to avoid problems by zapping filthy food with gamma rays as it leaves the processing plant.

"Let's get to the source," says Food & Water national director Michael Colby. "Let's clean up chicken processing."

That's what Sweden has done. The country has largely eliminated Salmonella contamination not by irradiating its poultry, but by using contaminant-free chicken feed, rat-proofed and disinfected pens, and other safeguards.

"No salmonella has been isolated from broilers [in Sweden] for two years." reported egg industry magazine in a 1990 article.

Gamma Go-Ahead? Could the use of irradiation ever be justified? Possibly.

Some illnesses might not be controllable by other means. In those cases, the small-scale targeted use of irradiation could save lives. But for most uses, there are good alternatives.

* Spices. Other than Sam Whitney's strawberries, the only irradiated foods currently sold in the United States are some imported spices, which often arrive contaminated with insects and microbes. But companies have started decontaminating using rapid steam heating under pressure.

Spice giant McCormick says that it "does not irradiate any of its consumer products, has no plans to, and will not without full public disclosure."

* Produce. In theory, irradiation could replace potentially-harmful pesticides in preventing insects from invading new growing regions when fruits or vegetables are shipped. But other approaches--like treatment with cold, vapor heat, or carbon dioxide--often are able to kill pests. They also could help keep foods from spoiling.

And speaking of spoiling: is produce with a longer shelf life worth the risk of bringing radioactive chemicals to communities around the country?

Apparently not to Maine, New Jersey, and New York, which have all outlawed the sale of irradiated foods and food ingredients other than spices.

A number of major food processors and retailers--including Perdue, Tyson, McDonald's, Quaker, and A & P--have also rejected the use of irradiated foods or ingredients.

Which Irradirection Next? The public will never figure out whether irradiation is safe by listening to the FDA or to no-irradiation groups.

Congress needs to commission a study by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS should look into the effects of irradiation on food safety and nutrition, alternative means and costs of preventing food poisoning, and the dangers to workers and communities of irradiation plants.

Until that's done, irradiation should be put on hold.

Radura Solutions. You can be sure that food processors are carefully monitoring the progress of Sam Whitney's strawberries. If stores carry--and shoppers buy--the irradiated fruit, other companies will be more likely to use irradiation.

Whick is why, at the very least, irradiated foods should be clearly labeled so that consumer can avoid them if they want to. Currently, any irradiated "whole food"--like Vindicator's strawberries--must bear the "radura" symbol and words such as "treated with irradiation."

But irradiated foods served at restaurants don't have to be labeled. And if an irradiated ingredient is used in a processed food--irradiated strawberries in a strawberry pie, for example--the food doesn't have to be labeled. Those labeling loopholes need to be closed.

Also, government scientists should figure out a way to determine how heavily a food has been irradiated. That will help protect consumers against foods that have been treated with illegally high doses.

And most importantly, the FDA and USDA should insists that food be as free from disease-causing germs as possible. Irradiation shouldn't be used to cover up filthy food.

General References:

Fed. Reg. 51: 13376, 1986; Fed. Reg. 55: 18538, 1990; Nutrition Action Healthletter, November 1986.

[1] Report by Donald W. Thayer, USDA Eastern Regional Research Center, on Wholesomeness Studies of Chicken, March 19, 1984.

[2] Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 28: 130, 1975.

[3] Radiat. Phys. Chem. 34: 941, 1989.

[4] Friedman, M., Nutritional and Toxicological Consequences of Food Processing, (Plenum Press, New York), 1991, p. 11.

[5] Food Chemical News, May 25, 1987, p. 53.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Center for Science in the Public Interest
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Schmidt, Stephen
Publication:Nutrition Action Healthletter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1992
Previous Article:Cereals: playing the grain game.
Next Article:Animal feed: render unto salmonella.

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