by Whit Gibbons

June 2, 2003

In preparing a simple, straightforward answer to a question about irradiated foods, I discovered the subject is more complex than I had realized--at least in the minds of some people. For reasons not totally clear to me, the topic of radiation can be far more sinister than seems warranted.

Q. I am doing a research paper on irradiated foods for my environmental science class. Could you assist me with information on the subject, as well as give your personal opinion on the safety of this process?

A. I know of no legitimate health complaints about irradiated foods, which should be completely harmless as far as a radiation effect. Irradiating meat has not been documented to cause harm to humans, although the meat might not meet health standards for other, unrelated reasons. However, Dr. Carl Strojan, who worked on a food irradiation project with the U.S. Army, told me that "in the early days" irradiated foods did not taste good.

That was my short answer, but a recent newspaper article, "As irradiated meat heads to schools, parents still fearful of the technology," confounds the issue. The article states that when meat is irradiated "most of the radiation passes through without being absorbed. The small amount that does remain kills the bacteria." The implication is that "radioactive" material is left behind. The article never states that irradiated objects have absolutely no radiation afterward. The process can be compared to shining a flashlight on an object in the dark. When the flashlight is turned off, no light is left.

Congress has already approved irradiation as an acceptable means of sanitizing foods. An Agriculture Department letter two years ago recommended that Congress "permit the use of ionizing radiation for treating refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat byproducts, and certain other meat food products to reduce levels of food borne pathogens and to extend shelf-life." Subjecting meat, milk, strawberries, or other foods to radiation kills toxic bacteria and parasites, thus irradiated foods have been approved for federal school lunch programs, which millions of children use.

The American Medical Association supports this technology with their policy to "affirm food irradiation as a safe and effective process that increases the safety of food when applied according to governing regulations." Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated more than eight years ago, "As long as requirements for good manufacturing practice are implemented, food irradiation is safe and effective. Possible risks resulting from disregard of good manufacturing practice are not basically different from those resulting from abuses of other
processing methods, such as canning, freezing and pasteurization." So why is anyone challenging irradiation of meat and other foods now?

One activist group, Public Citizen, declares "irradiating food causes the creation of known toxins and unique chemicals." They also state that lab research "has shown numerous health problems in lab animals that ate irradiated food, including reproductive problems, genetic damage and cancer development." I am not familiar with the lab studies mentioned, but as I stated above and the WHO noted in its report, irradiated food might be unsuitable for reasons completely unrelated to the actual irradiation.

I believe the outcry against irradiated food is founded on issues and concerns that go far deeper than whether school food programs can be improved by a simple method of sanitizing what is eaten. In protests against irradiated meat, at least three basic mind-sets can influence opinions.

1. Distrust of the government. As far as not having faith in government decrees or policies, plenty of evidence certainly exists to confirm that some politicians are less than honest. But irradiating meat does not seem to be an area where this would be a problem.

2. The specter of radiation. A fear of radiation stems from the ignorance most of us have on the topic. But radiation concerns about food after it is irradiated are unfounded.

3. Condemnation of the meat industry for unhealthy processing. Some critics claim that irradiation is used merely to allow tainted meat to be put on the market. Such claims deserve investigation. But the fact remains that the process of irradiating meat is not itself unhealthy.

So my simple, straightforward answer remains the same: I know of no legitimate health complaints about irradiated foods.

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