Do you eat food that has been Irradiated?
Nuclear Lunch: The Dangers and Unknowns of Food Irradiation
Beginning in 1986, the FDA has given the green light to expose nearly
our entire food supply to nuclear irradiation. Since then, staunch
citizen opposition has kept the technology out of use. But the recent
hamburger recall led both the food and nuclear industries to push hard
for beef irradiation's approval. Its use in the beef industry would open
the door to irradiation as the "solution" to contamination crises in
all food groups, from poultry to fruits and vegetables.
With beef irradiation's quick passage through the FDA approval process, citizen opposition, not government regulation, remains the critical component in keeping irradiated food off store shelves.
And from the hazards inherent in the
technology to the FDA's own admission that the safety studies are
flawed, the risks involved with food irradiation far outweigh the
Food is irradiated using radioactive
gamma sources, usually cobalt 60 or cesium 137, or high energy electron
beams. The gamma rays break up the molecular structure of the food,
forming positively and negatively charged particles called free
radicals. The free radicals react with the food to create new chemical
substances called "radiolytic products." Those unique to the irradiation
process are known as "unique radiolytic products" (URPs).
Some radiolytic products, such as formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid, and quinones are harmful to human health. Benzene,
for example, is a known carcinogen. In one experiment, seven times more
benzene was found in cooked, irradiated beef than in cooked,
non-irradiated beef. Some URPs are completely new chemicals that have
not even been identified, let alone tested for toxicity.
In addition, irradiation destroys essential vitamins, including
vitamin A, thiamin, B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid, C, E, and K; amino
acid and essential polyunsaturated fatty acid content may also be
affected. A 20 to 80 percent loss of any of these is not uncommon.
Safety Studies Flawed
The FDA reviewed 441 toxicity studies to determine the safety of
irradiated foods. Dr. Marcia van Gemert, the team leader in charge of
new food additives at the FDA and the chairperson of the committee in
charge of investigating the studies, testified that all 441 studies were
The government considers irradiation a food additive. In testing food
additives for toxicity, laboratory animals are fed high levels (in
comparison to a human diet) of potential toxins.
The results must then be applied to humans with theoretical models.
It is questionable whether the studies the FDA used to approve food
irradiation followed this process. In fact, the FDA claimed only five of
the 441 were "properly conducted, fully adequate by 1980 toxicological
standards, and able to stand alone in support of safety." With the shaky
assurance of just five studies, the FDA approved irradiation for the
public food system.
With the shaky assurance of just five studies, the FDA approved irradiation for the public food supply.
To make matters worse, the Department of Preventative Medicine and
Community Health of the New Jersey Medical School found two of the
studies were methodologically flawed. In a third study, animals eating a
diet of irradiated food experienced weight loss and miscarriage, almost
certainly due to irradiation-induced vitamin E dietary deficiency.
The remaining two studies investigated the effects of diets of foods
irradiated at doses below the FDA-approved general level of 100,000
rads. Thus, they cannot be used to justify food irradiation at the
levels approved by the FDA.
Other studies indicate serious health problems associated with eating irradiated food.
A compilation of 12 studies carried out by Raltech Scientific
Services, Inc. under contract with the U.S. government examined the
effect of feeding irradiated chicken to several different animal
The studies indicated the possibility of chromosome damage,
immunotoxicity, greater incidence of kidney disease, cardiac thrombus,
and fibroplasia. In reviewing Raltech's findings in 1984, USDA
researcher Donald Thayer asserted, "A collective assessment of study
results argues against a definitive conclusion that the gamma-irradiated
test material was free of toxic properties."
Studies of rats fed irradiated food also indicate possible kidney and testicular damage and a statistically significant increase in testicular tumors.
One landmark study in India found four out of five children fed
irradiated wheat developed polyploidy, a chromosomal abnormality that is
a good indication of future cancer development.
Irradiation proponents often claim that decades of research
demonstrate the safety of food irradiation, but the studies they use to
prove it are questionable. For instance, their "proof" includes studies
completed by Industry Bio-Test (IBT), a firm convicted in 1983 of
conducting fraudulent research for government and industry. As a result
of IBT's violations, the government lost about $4 million and six years
of animal feeding study data on food irradiation. Some of this
discredited work is still used as a part of the "scientific" basis for
assurances of the safety of food irradiation.
Workers in irradiation plants risk exposure to large doses of
radiation due to equipment failure, leaks, and the production,
transportation, storage, installation, and replacement of radiation
sources. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has recorded 54
accidents at 132 irradiation facilities worldwide since 1974. But this
number is probably low since the NRC has no information about
irradiation facilities in approximately 30 "agreement" states which have
the authority to monitor facilities on their own.
New Jersey is home to the highest concentration of irradiation
facilities, and virtually every New Jersey plant has a record of
environmental contamination, worker overexposure, or regulatory
Accidents can be nearly fatal to workers and extremely dangerous to the surrounding communities.
In 1991, a worker at a Maryland facility suffered critical injuries
when exposed to ionizing radiation from an electron-beam accelerator.
The victim developed sores and blisters on his feet, face, and scalp,
and lost fingers on both hands.
In 1988, Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. (RSI) in Decatur, GA, reported a
leak of cesium 137 capsules into the water storage pool, endangering
workers and contaminating the facility. Workers then carried the
radioactivity into their homes and cars. Cleanup costs exceeded $30
million and taxpayers footed the bill.
In 1986, the NRC revoked the license of a Radiation Technology, Inc.
(RTI) facility in New Jersey for 32 worker-safety violations, including
throwing radioactive garbage out with the trash and bypassing a key
safety device. As a result of this negligence, one worker received a
near lethal dose of radiation.
In 1982, an accident at International Nutronics in Dover, NJ,
contaminated the plant and forced its closure. Radiation baths were used
to purify gems, chemicals, food and medical supplies.
In 1974, an Isomedix facility in New Jersey flushed radioactive water
down toilets and contaminated pipes leading to sewers. In the same
year, a worker received a dose of radiation considered lethal for 70
percent of the population. Prompt hospital treatment saved his life.
Not a Silver Bullet
Irradiation poses serious risks, and it still does not ensure safe
meat. Although it kills most bacteria, it does not destroy the toxins
created in the early stages of contamination. And it also kills
beneficial bacteria which produce odors indicating spoilage and
naturally control the growth of harmful bacteria.
Irradiation also stimulates aflatoxin production.
Aflatoxin occurs naturally in humid areas and tropical countries in
fungus spores and on grains and vegetables. The World Health
Organization (WHO) considers aflatoxin to be a significant public health
risk and a major contributor to liver cancer in the South.
In addition, irradiation will likely have a mutagenic effect on bacteria and viruses
that survive exposure. Mutated survivors could be resistant to
antibiotics and could evolve into more virulent strains. Mutated
bacteria could also become radiation-resistant, rendering the radiation
process ineffective for food exposed to radiation-resistant strains.
Though the current push for food irradiation focuses on meat, if the
technology is adopted by the meat industry and used on a mass scale, vegetarians as well as meat eaters will be impacted.
If adopted, the number of new irradiation facilities built would
range from dozens to hundreds, depending on how the meat industry chose
to utilize the technology. At the same time, the companies that build
them will be looking for ways to offset their costs, and approaching
other food industries to use the technology. Poultry, spices, and even
fresh fruits and vegetables -- foods for which irradiation has already
been approved by the FDA -- could easily be the next foods to pass
through the irradiators.
Whether you're a meat eater, a vegetarian, or waiver somewhere
between the two, this renewed push for food irradiation should concern
Radiation-resistent strains of salmonella have already been developed
under laboratory conditions, and scientists at Louisiana State
University in Baton Rouge have found that one bacteria occurring in
spoiled meat and animal feces can survive a radiation dose five times
what the FDA will eventually approve for beef. Scientists exposed
bacteria , called D. radiourans, to between 10 and 15 kilograys (kGy) or
radiation for several hours - enough radiation to kill a person several
thousand times over. The bacteria, which scientists speculate evolved
to survive extreme conditions of dehydration, survived the radiation
The Nuclear Connection
To irradiate beef and poultry in the US on a mass scale, hundreds of
irradiation facilities would need to be built. Currently, the radiation
source for most irradiators is cobalt 60, supplied by the Canadian
company Nordion International, Inc. But the only isotope available in
sufficient quantities for large-scale irradiation is cesium 137, which
is also one of the deadliest. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium 137
remains dangerous for nearly 600 years.
The US Department of Energy (DOE) initially encouraged food
irradiation as part of its Byproduct Utilization Program (BUP) created
in the 1970s to promote the commercial use of nuclear byproducts. The
DOE claimed nuclear byproducts "have a wide range of applications in
food technology, agriculture, energy, public health, medicine, and
industrial technology," and wanted to "ensure full realization of the
benefits of the peaceful atom."
The US Department of Energy initially encouraged food irradiation as
part of its Byproduct Utilization Program created in the 1970s to
promote the commercial use of nuclear byproducts.
At the same time, it would transfer the burden of nuclear waste from
weapons production to consumerism a fact the DOE admitted to the House
Armed Services Committee in 1983: "The utilization of these radioactive
materials simply reduces our waste handling problem; we get some of
these very hot elements like cesium and strontium out of the waste."
Not only would this take care of the DOE's waste problem, it would
develop the technology to reprocess spent nuclear reactor fuel in order
to recover cesium 137. The reprocessing would also enable the DOE to
recover plutonium, the main ingredient for nuclear weapons.
After the 1988 irradiator accident in Decatur, Georgia, the DOE
stopped actively promoting food irradiation and the use of cesium 137.
But the store of cesium 137 is ready and waiting.
With the FDA's approval of beef irradiation, the irradiation industry
is poised to use it as a springboard for flooding the market with a new
wave of food irradiation promotion. To be successful, however,
irradiation proponents must convince retailers that consumers want the
technology. The irradiation industry sees education or "consumer
training" as the key to citizen acceptance.
In response, scientists at major land-grant universities, with the
full support of the USDA, are developing "educational" materials. Iowa
State University (ISU), home of one of two publicly held food
irradiation facilities in the US, developed a pro-irradiation
educational video with a $39,000 grant from the USDA Extension Service.
The USDA gave grants to projects designed to influence public acceptance
of food technologies, specifically food irradiation.
But citizens don't want irradiated foods.
Surveys conducted in 1990 and 1994 by HealthFocus, a marketing
consulting firm specializing in consumer health trends, found that over
80 percent of consumers were concerned about food irradiation. A study
at ISU found when consumers are given solid arguments both for and
against irradiation, acceptance of the technology is substantially lower
than if they were only given the pro-irradiation side of the story. An
August 1997 CBS News poll found nationwide 73 percent of people oppose
it, and 77 percent say they wouldn't eat irradiated food.
Citizen aversion to irradiation is so strong, no major supermarket
chain will carry irradiated foods, and all the top poultry companies in
the nation have stated they will not adopt the technology. The US
government may approve its use, but that doesn't mean citizens will
believe it's safe, or that they will buy irradiated food.
Excerpted from the Food & Water report "Meat Monopolies: Dirty
Meat and the False Promises of Irradiation" by Susan Meeker-Lowry and
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