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The new beef: irradiated burgers for school children.

Last year, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved irradiated food for the National School Lunch Program despite overwhelming objections from thousands of people who commented on the proposal. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) maintains that irradiation is safe, while the European Union, family farm organizations, and some consumer groups remain critical. Since its inception, the food industry has aggressively promoted the technology, while consumers have generally avoided it and some school districts have banned irradiated food. Why the divergence? The controversy around food irradiation boils down to struggles over acceptable health risks and the type of food system we want to encourage.

In the United States, chemicals and other potential hazards are allowed onto the market unless there is scientific certainty that they are harmful. Many chemicals in our food and environment have never been adequately studied for health effects--or studied at all. On numerous occasions, the knowledge that these products cause harm has been gained not through scientific tests pre-approval, but rather through observations of negative health impacts decades later. The pesticide DDT, for example, was widely used during the 1950s and 1960s. Yet, we now know that it is probably carcinogenic and likely increases premature births--and thus infant mortality. Only after Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring documented its devastating effect on bird reproduction did the U.S. ban DDT in 1972. Nevertheless, DDT is still present in food domestically, albeit in much lower levels, three decades later because of the persistence of such chemicals in the environment.

Similar scenarios continue to create controversy. Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), for instance, is the focus of increased criticisms, as evidence grows about its cancer-causing potential. RBGH is banned in milk production throughout the European Union, which is increasingly ahead of the curve with food safety and environmental policies. The EU adheres to precautionary principle, the age-old idea that it's "better to be safe than sorry" when there are reasonable concerns that a potential hazard may negatively impact the environment or health, even if it is not definitively proven yet.

Unfortunately, since the U.S. government does not adhere to the precautionary principle, our food system is vulnerable to prematurely or improperly approved technologies, such as the irradiation of food. Food irradiation, designed to reduce bacteria, exposes food to ionizing radiation through gamma rays (produced by radioactive materials), X-rays, or electron-beams. No matter what type of machine is used, irradiation creates potential health risks and negative food system consequences.

When food is irradiated, molecular bonds break apart and cause new and sometimes unique molecules to form. When the FDA deemed irradiation safe, their approval was based on a handful of studies and overlooked several important concerns. Recent studies show that one class of these newly formed molecules, called 2-ACBs, may promote cancer development and cause genetic damage. 2-ACBs have never been found to naturally occur in food, and much is unknown about their effects on human health. In fact, no long-term study of humans consuming irradiated food has ever been conducted, even though irradiation is now allowed for foods ranging from beef to fruit to eggs. Irradiation also can increase the quantities of known carcinogens like formaldehyde and benzene in food. Finally, older research shows a wide range of health problems from the consumption of irradiated food, from reproductive problems to nutritional deficiencies.

Irradiation also depletes vitamins and nutrients in food-up to eighty percent of vitamin A in eggs and 48 percent of beta carotene in orange juice; it is particularly harmful to vitamins A, B, C and E. While the food industry plays down this nutrient loss by equating it to that from cooking or storage, irradiated food still needs to be cooked or stored, which thereby further decreases its nutritional value. Some vitamins experience accelerated losses during storage and cooking after food has been irradiated, worsening vitamin depletion.

When irradiated ground beef was approved for the National School Lunch Program (which feeds 27 million children annually), where it does not have to be labeled, these health risks became even more worrisome. Proportionally, children consume two to three times more pound for pound than adults, and thus are much more impacted by toxins. Many poor children who rely on the NSLP for nutrition may not have the option to bring theft own lunch to avoid irradiated food.

Considering these health issues, why has the food industry pursued this technology so enthusiastically? Several food-borne illness outbreaks in the last decade created negative publicity for the industry. Indeed, food-borne illness is a serious problem. However, the contamination that causes these illnesses is largely due to poor sanitation practices and weak regulation. In fact, many people are surprised to learn that the government has no power to recall tainted food, leaving the public at risk. Rather than cleaning up the system's problems, such as overcrowded livestock in confined operations and weakened inspection in slaughterhouses, the industry wants to use the quick fix of irradiation to mask contamination. As a 2003 Salt lake Tribune editorial noted, irradiation is "the dietary equivalent of painting the house when the foundation has caved in." Good sanitation, not irradiation, is necessary to maintain a safe food supply.

The food industry also wants irradiation to extend shelf life and enable certain produce to be imported. Both these attributes mean that food can be shipped further from where it was produced, so your food would be less likely locally-grown, or even domestically-grown. Already, the average food item travels 1500 miles before it gets to your grocery store. Irradiation drives us further from a sustainable, local food system and is a tool for the major agribusiness players to gain more market control

Luckily, consumers have power over the food industry. Shoppers can choose to buy organic food or locally-grown food, both of which help create a better and more environmentally-friendly system As a health-conscious and conscientious customer, you can avoid irradiated foods in stores, which are marked with a flower-like radura symbol and "Treated with Irradiation." As a 2002 Consumer Reporting article notes: "There's no reason to [buy irradiated meat] if you cook meat thoroughly. Irradiation actually destroys fewer bacteria than does proper cooking" Indeed, because of low consumer demand, dozens of grocery," stores have discontinued irradiated meat recently.

A real chance for meaningful action involves school lunch policies. While three states ordered irradiated ground beef from the NSLP last year, none actually received it because of the high price and some officials' reluctance. Some school districts in Tennessee requested irradiated beef last year, but the state did not get enough requests to order it. Because school nutrition policies are largely determined on the district level, an involved parent or resident can bring about change. Already, ten school districts, including Iowa City and Washington DC, have banned irradiated food: These bans are part of a widespread movement to improve school nutrition, which has led to farm-to-school programs and stronger nutritional guidelines. The Seattle school district recently combined these efforts, directing against irradiated food in their "buy local, buy organic" policy.

In sum, there are several significant health concerns about irradiated food, and many questions that remain unanswered about how it affects human health. The push for irradiation is also a symptom of a broader safety failure in our food industry, as well as the increasing dominance of agriculture by a few behemoth players. Thankfully, we don't have to buy irradiated food and we don't have to let our youngest generation eat it, if we take concerted efforts to keep it out of our stores, homes, and schools!

What can YOU do about irradiated food?

Don't buy it!

Avoid food marked with the radura, and tell your local grocery store you don't want it carried. Check out for more information on retail sales of irradiated food. Right now, consumers in the Southeast are most likely to find irradiated ground beef, spices, or perhaps poultry (in Publix stores).

Tell your school district you don't want it served!

Public Citizen has a sample letter you can send to your state's food service director, asking them not to purchase irradiated food for schools. You can also work in your community to get your school district to adopt a resolution banning irradiated food. Find out more at This effort could be a stand-alone ban or part of a comprehensive healthy school nutrition policy.

Audrey Hill is the Food Organizer for Public Citizen, a non-profit consumer advocacy organization based in Washington, DC. She has a B.A. in Environmental Policy from Pomona College, and previously worked at the Children's Environmental Health Network on policy and environmental education. To reach Audrey, call 202-454-5185 or email
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Title Annotation:vital vittles
Author:Hill, Audrey
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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