WE ALLOW IRRADIATED MEAT IN SCHOOLS?
August 15, 2010
As the academic
year begins anew, the topic of whether school cafeterias should serve
irradiated foods will once again be debated in various circles. Like the
perennial discussion of whether the scientific facts of evolution should
be taught in schools and whether sports programs should get more funding
than the arts, the debate about irradiated foods is a recurring one.
is twofold: is irradiated meat safe to eat and should it be served in
schools? The answer is simple: yes. No credible health concerns have been
presented for not doing so. The process of irradiating foods to kill bacteria
and other organisms has many supporters. A decade ago the U.S. Agriculture
Department recommended that Congress "permit the use of ionizing
radiation for treating refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat by-products,
and certain other meat food products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens
and to extend shelf life." Subsequently, Congress approved irradiation
to sanitize foods. Subjecting meat, milk, strawberries, and other foods
to radiation kills toxic bacteria and parasites. Irradiated foods have
been approved for federal school lunch programs, and the American Medical
Association has long been a supporter of the technology.
as with any topic you can think of, there are naysayers who vehemently
oppose irradiation. Despite scientific studies touting the benefits of
irradiation and consensus among the general populace that it is a good
thing, irradiating meat has its detractors. Some concerns are based on
the totally false idea that irradiated meat contains residual radiation.
For some people, the specter of radiation looms large on their list of
"things to worry about." They can avoid some sleepless nights
by striking "irradiated meat" from their worry list. Irradiated
objects have absolutely no radiation left in them. The process of irradiation
can be compared to shining a flashlight on an object in the dark. When
the flashlight is turned off, no light remains. But some critics of irradiated
foods can't seem to let the fiction of residual radiation go.
of irradiation say that spoiled foods may be disguised, improper food
practices may be overlooked, and flavor may be impaired. But these problems
are inherent in the food industry. Irradiating the food does not cause
these problems. Foods may not meet health standards for other, unrelated
reasons, but not simply because they are irradiated. Dr. Carl Strojan,
a colleague of mine, once told me that "in the early days,"
when he worked on a food irradiation project with the U.S. Army, irradiated
foods did not taste good. U.S. soldiers have complained about army food
since George Washington was at Valley Forge, and bad taste is not a common
complaint of today's processing.
the outcry against irradiated food by a few critics is founded on issues
and concerns that go far deeper than whether school food programs can
be improved by sanitizing what is eaten. Protests against irradiated meats
and other foods seem to have their basis in three mind-sets:
of the government. Plenty of evidence exists to support the contention
that some politicians are less than honest. But the issue of whether to
irradiate meat does not seem to be one in which dishonest politicians
would play a role.
2. The specter
of radiation. An unreasonable fear of radiation stems from people's ignorance
on the topic. Concerns about residual radiation after food is irradiated
of the meat industry for unhealthy processing practices. 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 inherently unhealthy.
So, is irradiated
meat safe to eat and should it be served in schools? Yes. I know of no
health concerns that should prevent irradiated foods from being served
to schoolchildren or anybody else. I'm glad the naysayers didn't get their
way when Louis Pasteur was figuring out how to eliminate harmful bacteria
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