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Treating your food with radiation--is it safe?

How It All Began

The checkered past of food irradiation began nearly 50 years ago in an attempt to send can-packed bacon to troops in Vietnam. As part of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace program, irradiation was developed to utilize the "peaceful atom" in a way that "the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life." Other innovations for the peaceful atom included the nuclear powered pacemaker and a nuclear coffee pot, both rendered obsolete as a consequence of new technologies and common sense. Food irradiation, however, would not fall by the wayside.

In 1963, after nearly a decade of research, canned bacon was sent to the soldiers in Vietnam. In 1968, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) withdrew the regulation that permitted irradiating the meat after it was found that the Army's research was flawed. The FDA cited decreased survival rates, cancer, and reproductive problems among young animals that were fed the irradiated meat. Between 1971 and 1977, the Army contracted Industrial BioTest Ltd. (IBT), a giant among animal testing facilities at the time, to study the long-term effects of irradiated food on animals. The Army found IBT's work deficient two years into the study, but the contractual arrangement was allowed to continue. Several similarly flawed studies were conducted over the next several years, and government scientists eventually rejected their research.

In 1983, three IBT directors were convicted of falsifying chemical and pesticide data for research unrelated to irradiation. Despite IBT's lack of credibility, their results are still used as part of the basis for assurances on food safety today.

In the 1970's, Jack Sivinski and his team of irradiation biologists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were testing irradiation as a way to sterilize spacecraft to eliminate microbes from Earth that could contaminate Mars. NASA eventually chose a different technique, but Sivinski had an idea: Nuclear waste might possibly be used to irradiate food. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing in 1983, The Department of Energy (DOE) admitted that "the utilization of these radioactive materials simply reduces our waste handling problem." Their proposal was all but defeated when, in 1988, a serious accident at Radiation Sterilizers in Decatur, Georgia, leaked cesium-137 (a water-soluble radioactive isotope) into a water storage pool. The incident cost $47 million to clean up and endangered workers and their families.

FDA's Flawed Studies

Despite their distressing history, irradiated foods are presently available for sale in the United States. The FDA has legalized high-dose radiation treatments for a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, spices, and meat products, despite the fact that their studies fail to meet most modern standards. FDA officials have knowingly sidestepped federal regulations and their own protocols and have allowed radiation to be used on several types of food on the basis of studies that their own experts have labeled deficient.

No significant research has been done on the safety of irradiated products since the FDA began to give its approval to food and nuclear interests. In 1982, FDA officials said that irradiating food with 1 kilogray of radiation was probably safe, but nothing has been done to study the effect of 7 kilograys, an amount it allowed for beef and lamb in 1997.

In 1986, the FDA announced its first major approval using seven key scientific studies. One of the studies had been declared deficient by FDA toxicologists, three were not written in English, and none of them met modern standards. One of the studies, completed in Germany, was called deficient by Marcia van Gemert, Chair of the Irradiated Foods Task Force (IFTG). She later wrote that the German study actually "claimed to show adverse effects of radiated food." Later, the FDA legalized the irradiation of eggs on the basis of a study conducted in 1959.

Unique Radiolytic Products

At a staff seminar held by the FDA in 1967, Jacqueline Verret said, "Since irradiated food and its unknown components will be added to the ever-growing pool of chemicals in the human environment, the possibilities of potentation of toxic effects, already formidable, become even more so." This is thought to be the first mention of the chemicals created by food irradiation.

Unique radiolytic products (URP's) appear after meat has been treated with irradiation and have been shown to cause genetic problems in rats and damage in human cells. URP's do not occur naturally in beef or in any other foods.

In 1977, ten years after Verret's speech and nineteen years after Congress approved the Food Additives Amendment, the first studies of these new chemical compounds began. Scientists at the Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology (FASEB) measured concentrations of 65 chemical compounds in irradiated beef. Their findings uncovered five URP's found only in irradiated meat, 35 other chemicals that were not naturally occurring in beef, and a 650 percent increase in the concentration of benzene (a known carcinogen).

After the experiments, the scientists revealed that "... no analysis, however exhaustive, can exclude the possibility of the presence of undetected constituents, no unequivocal demonstration of safety seems possible from the consideration of the individual radiolytic products alone." In other words, irradiation can never be deemed totally safe, in the opinion of the FASEB scientists.

Three years after the FASEB raised questions about URP's, the FDA allowed two committees to study the health impacts of irradiated food. The first of these studies, performed by the Irradiated Food Committee (IFC), acknowledged that the URP's created a complicated problem. In the words of the committee, "The radiolysis data available in the scientific literature are insufficient to completely catalog the identity and quantity of each radiolytic product formed in any particular food." Some have made allegations that the IFC had taken liberties with their data.

Using unproved theories and assumptions, the IFC eschewed scientific data and estimated how many URP's the irradiation process created. The IFC explained: "The true extent of the dietary uniqueness of URP's is somewhat tenuous, due largely to the paucity of information."

The IFC also claimed that URP's would not pose a threat to humans who consume them because the chemicals are likely to be similar to those in food products not treated with radiation. The IFC offered no specific evidence.

Present Day

Currently, there are petitions before the FDA and the USDA to legalize irradiation for nearly every category of food that is sold in the United States. The FDA is also considering the legalization of the importing of irradiated food. In addition to the legalization of irradiated foods, it is possible that federal labeling requirements might be changed to allow the misleading euphemisms "cold pasteurized" and "electronically pasteurized" to be placed on the food packages themselves.

Peter Jenkins, an attorney and food policy analyst with the Center for Food Safety, weighed in with his opinion: "Comparing food that's been blasted with the equivalent of millions of chest x-rays to pasteurized milk--it would be funny if it weren't so deceitful."

The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) proposed that radiation be allowed on imported fruit and vegetable to control certain types of flies and weevils without acknowledging that the radiation might cause mutation in the few surviving insects.

Even with the unbalanced studies based on assumption and outdated data, irradiated meat recently went on sale in selected test markets. The meat itself, mostly sold throughout the Midwest, was treated with a device that was adapted from its intended use as part of the "Star Wars" defense program. In Nebraska and Florida, the meat was later taken off the shelves after a poor response from consumers.

Irradiation's Shortcomings

For irradiation to be completely successful, the process would need to eliminate every microorganism and contaminate from the food product. A few leftover Salmonella bacteria on an undercooked chicken breast can multiply and return to toxic levels in just a few hours.

Irradiation is being used to mask unhygienic practices in processing plants across the country. Meat processed in corporate factories is often contaminated.

"What do you have when you irradiate food that has these contaminates?" asks Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, a public service organization. "You have sanitized feces, urine, and pus. Is that what we want to feed to our families? Instead of attacking the root causes of disease and filth that would make our food supply safer, the USDA and FDA seem satisfied with tolerating a certain level of contaminants and using questionable methods to deal with them."

RELATED ARTICLE: Accidents happen: a look at three irradiation centers.

DOVER--Executives at International Neutronics, a food-irradiating company based in Palo Alto, California. avoided Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) investigators by repeatedly delaying inspection of the New Jersey facility.

As a result, in 1982 a pump malfunctioned and workers were instructed to pour radioactive water down a shower drain that emptied into the local sewer system. Workers were also told to falsify the readings on their radiation-detection badges. In all, 600 gallons of water containing the radioactive isotope cobalt-60 were spilled.

International Neutronics vice president Eugene O'Sullivan, once a member of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, was convicted of conspiracy and fraud in October 1986.

WHIPPANY--The Whippany plant failed five NRC safety inspections between 1986 and 1998. Among the violations were a missing 55-gallon drum of radioactive waste and a faulty safety device that was not repaired until a mechanic returned from vacation.

In 1994, NRC inspectors found a gray container that had been leaking cobalt-60 since 1976. As of 1998, the company still had not put together a proper disposal program at the time of its sale in 1999.

ROCKAWAY--In 1977, a worker at Radiation Technology was exposed to a near-fatal dose of radiation when a safety system failed. In 1986, the NRC cited executives for disabling the system.

The violations from the NRC piled up--30 by 1988. including one for throwing out radioactive garbage with the trash. The company's president and one of the nuclear engineers were charged with 11 counts of conspiracy to defraud the NRC, of making false statements, and of violating the Atomic Energy Act.

In 1986, clean-up began after it was discovered that Radiation Technology had buried some of its waste on-site. There was no documentation as to where the waste had been buried, but investigations found four sites. Three sites were within the plant's property, and one was alongside a nearby creek that drains into Lake Denmark.

Radiation Technology was sold to SteriGenics in 1996, and the new tenants discovered an old irradiator containing 19 curies of cobalt-60. They did not dispose of the old unit because no containers existed that were large enough to move them safely.
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Publication:Nutrition Health Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
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