Q-Have you come across research or tests on the light (laser) that is shone on our food to read the bar code in shops? I understand that, though not as bad as x-rays, it does take out some of the energy (and is distinctly not advised for homoeopathic remedies). BC, Marlborough, Wiltshire.
A-We checked with Chris Busby, an expert on low level radiation and health, advisor to the Green Group in the European Parliament, and scientist and technologist speaker for the Green Party in England and Wales. His view is that this laser light, which is simply an intense red light with a wavelength of 630 nanometres, is generally not really dangerous to the nutrients in food. This type of laser light might be dangerous if you zapped your eyes with it, but it doesn't pose a
serious threat to the food quickly passed through it (except, as you say, for homoeopathic remedies).
However, the more serious issue with radiation and food concerns the movements afoot to irradiate food.
In the US, both the food and nuclear industries have been pushing hard to gain public acceptance of food irradiation in the wake of several well publicised outbreaks of Escherichia coli food poisoning.
Radiation can also be used to tidy up food, such as spoiled fish, that has passed its sell by date by killing the contaminating bacteria that also account for the foul odours.
In June 2000, Dr Samuel Epstein, arguably the world's leading authority on environmental causes of cancer and author of The Politics of Cancer Revisited (Fremont Center, NY: East Redge Press, 1998) co-authored (with Wenonah Hauter, of the consumer activist Ralph Nader founded organisation Public Citizen) an excoriating attack on the US government's new policy of food irradiation.
According to Epstein, committees within the House of Representatives and the Senate have proposed 'sanitising' the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) already weak labelling requirements for irradiated food by eliminating the word 'irradiated' and substituting the words 'electronic pasteurisation'. Epstein calls this a "euphemistic absurdity" in light of the fact that the FDA allows dosages of 450,000 rads for meat the equivalent radiation of 150 million chest x-rays.
"Irradiated meat is very different from cooked meat. Whether irradiated by linear accelerators, pelletised radioactive isotopes or x-ray machines, the resulting ionising radiation produces highly reactive free radicals and peroxides that form unsaturated fats," wrote Epstein and Hauter.
"US Army analyses in 1977 revealed major differences between volatile chemicals formed during irradiation or cooking meat. Levels of the carcinogen benzene in radiated beef were some tenfold higher than (ordinary) cooked beef. Additionally, high concentrations of six poorly characterized unique radiolytic chemical products (URPs), admittedly implicated as carcinogens or carcinogenic under certain conditions, were also identified."
The FDA has mainly relied on five 20 and 30 year old studies to prove irradiation safety. Neverthe less, says Epstein and Hauter, Dr Marcia van Gernert, the chair of the FDA's Irradiated Food Task Committee which reviewed these studies, says that none of the studies were adequate by even 1982 standards, much less by current ones.
"Furthermore," says Epstein/ Hauter, "Detailed analysis of these studies by Dr Louria, chairman of the deparment of Preventive Medicine in New Jersey Medical School, showed that all are grossly flawed and non exculpatory."
Studies performed earlier than 1986 clearly identified carcinogenic products in irradiated food as well as genetic damage. Animal tests conducted by the National Institute of Nutrition in the 1970s showed that feeding freshly irradiated wheat to starving, malnourished chidren and animals could induce gross chromosomal damage in blood or bone marrow cells and also cause mutations in the cells of rodents, says Epstein. Other studies have confirmed these findings.
The US Department of Agriculture itself has admitted that food irradiation results in major losses of micronutrients, in particular,vitamins A, B-complex, C and E. These losses multiply when food is cooked.
The other problem, says Busby, is that irradiating food disrupts the DNA in the food, and cuts it into pieces and odd strands. The body then absorbs these new weird strands to unknown effect.
The Department of Energy is also pushing food irradiation as a means of reducing the cost of disposing of used nuclear fuel by providing a market for nuclear waste.
Although Europe has not made any such public announcements, it's likely that the British food industry will follow America's lead and introduce irradiation as a cheap means of recycling nuclear waste and cleaning up the hazards of intensive farming. As Busby says, it's easier to feed chickens on dodgy feed, and zap any Salmonella with huge amounts of gamma rays than to tackle issues of sanitation caused by intensive food production.
In America, the US Department of Agriculture is also moving to deregulate and privatise industry
by pushing for a self policing programme of control. The agency also has plans to begin a process that would essentially privatise meat inspection, allowing the producers to police themselves.
According to Epstein, sanitation of feed pens and the animals' drinking water, better feeding schedules and sanitation all through the production process would go a long way toward eliminating infection.