by Whit Gibbons

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.

The question 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

Other critics 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.

I believe 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:

1. Distrust 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 are groundless.

3. Condemnation 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 in milk.

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