The food and nuclear industries, with strong government support, have capitalised on outbreaks of Escherichia coli food poisoning to mobilise public acceptance of food irradiation. Both the US Congressional and Senate Appropriations Committees proposed sanitising the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) weak labelling requirements for irradiated food by replacing the word 'irradiated' with 'electronic pasteurisation'. This is a euphemistic absurdity, given that the FDA radiation dosage of 450,000 rads for meat approximates to 150 million chest X-rays, not to mention circumventing consumers' fundamental right to know.
US army analyses in 1977 revealed major differences in the chemicals formed during irradiating vs cooking meat. Levels of the carcinogen benzene in irradiated beef were some 10 times higher than in cooked beef. High concentrations of six unique radiolytic chemical products (URPs) 'implicated as carcinogens or carcinogenic under certain conditions' were also identified.
Based on these changes in the chemistry of irradiated meat, the FDA's 1980 Irradiated Food Task Committee warned that safety testing should be based on concentrated extracts of irradiated foods, rather than whole foods, to maximise the concentration of URPs. This would enable the development of a routine safety test of sufficient sensitivity. In a 1984 letter to Science, one of us (SE) wrote: 'Stable radiolytic products could be extracted from irradiated foods . . . and subsequently tested. Until such fundamental studies are undertaken, there is little scientific basis for accepting industry's assurances of safety.'
Yet, the FDA refused to require such testing on the grounds that it is inherently difficult and expensive.
Instead, the FDA relied on a handful of studies, selected from over 400 in the 1970s and early 1980s, as a basis of its claims of safety. But Dr Marcia van Gemert, chairman of the FDA Irradiated Food Task Committee that reviewed these studies, insists that none was adequate by 1982 standards, much less those of the 1990s. Detailed analyses of these studies found that all were grossly flawed and non-exculpatory.
These results are hardly surprising as several independent studies prior to 1986 clearly reported evidence of genetic damage with irradiated food, and studies in the 1970s by India's National Institute of Nutrition found that feeding freshly irradiated wheat to malnourished children, monkeys, rats and mice induced gross chromosomal damage to blood/bone marrow cells, and mutational damage in rodents. Subsequent studies also revealed mutagenic and carcinogenic radiolytic chemicals in irradiated food.
As admitted by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Research Service, food irradiation results in major micronutrent losses - particularly vitamins A, C, E and B-complex - which are increased by cooking, resulting in 'empty-calorie' food.
Radiation has also been used to clean up food unfit for human consumption, such as spoiled fish, by killing odorous, contaminating bacteria.
Irradiation facilities using pelletised isotopes pose a risk of nuclear accidents to communities nationwide from the more than 1200 nuclear facilities envisaged for the potentially enormous radiation market. Unlike nuclear power stations, these facilities are relatively small, minimally regulated, unlikely to be secure and require regular replenishment of cobalt (Co-60) or cesium (Cs-137) isotopes - a nationwide transportation hazard. Facilities using linear accelerators (electronic beams) to irradiate food are only suitable for foods less than three inches thick. Again, such facilities pose grave hazards for workers, yet will be subject to almost no regulation.
The irradiation industry's track record is unimpressive. Robert Alvaraz, former Department of Energy Senior Policy Advisor, recently warned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) files are bulging with unreported radioactive spills, worker overexposure and off-site radiation leakage. But, strangely, the Environmental Protection Agency still doesn't require an Environmental Impact Statement prior to the siting of food-irradiation facilities.
The focus of the radiation and agribusiness industries has been toward the lucrative cleanup of contaminated food, rather than preventing contamination at source. However, E. coli food poisoning could largely be prevented by long-overdue improvements in sanitation, which would drastically reduce cattle infection rates; this would be further reduced by feeding hay seven days prior to slaughter. Better sanitation would also prevent public water-supply contamination, incriminated in a recent outbreak of E. coli poisoning in Walkerton, Ontario.
Pre- and post-slaughter sanitation at meat-packing plants can sharply reduce the carcass contamination rate. Testing pooled carcasses for E. coli and Salmonella is economical, practical and quick. The cost of producing sanitary meat is trivial compared with the high cost of irradiation, including possible nuclear accidents. Additional costs could result from the likelihood of a European, if not international, ban on imports of irradiated American food, apart from posing a major threat to the US tourist industry.
Industry agency and Congressional support of 'electronic pasteurisation' is a camouflaged denial of consumers' fundamental right to know. Rather than sanitising the label in response to special interests, Congress should focus on sanitation - not irradiation - of our food supply.
This is an updated extract from a joint statement, issued by Dr Epstein of the Cancer Prevention Coalition in Chicago and Ms Hauter of Public Citizen in Washington, to the US government in response to its food irradiation-labelling policies.