If you were to ask the average person on the street what he or she thinks of food irradiation, the most likely response would be a puzzled, "What's that?" Few Americans know that the next time they bite into a slice of bread, they may be eating irradiated wheat, or that when they pour spaghetti sauce on their pasta, they may be eating irradiated herbs and spices. They are unaware of the fact that part of the food supply is being exposed to doses of radiation that are equivalent to 2.5 million X-rays, despite the fact that the technology has been at the center of a national and international health debate for more than three decades.
Why would anyone want to subject something we are going to eat to radiation? There are several reasons. Radiation eliminates infestation by parasites and insects, prevents spoilage and the growth of molds, and generally extends a food's shelf life and marketability.
In order to achieve this, food products ranging from fresh fruits and vegetables to raw chicken and pork are exposed to a radiation source that may have been culled from the core of a nuclear reactor or from wastes left over from the production of an atomic bomb. Advocates of irradiation say research has shown that the process is safe and effective. Opponents point to studies in which children developed blood abnormalities associated with leukemia, in which mice were found to have hearts swollen to three times their normal size and burst open, and in which fruit flies bore offspring that were visibly mutated or dead.
Curiously, despite the fact that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has given food irradiation the green light, its own Recommendations for Evaluating the Safety of Foods (Final Report) stated that "chronic feeding studies which have substituted up to thirty five percent of the normal [lab animal] diet with specific irradiated foods ... had to be terminated because of premature mortality and morbidity." To put it plainly, the animals in these studies got sick and died.
Despite these findings, food irradiation has been approved, and in almost all cases of current use, no warning label is required. The combination of close-to-nonexistent labeling with almost no government publicity of its food irradiation approvals has meant that most Americans are being kept in the dark about the reality of the irradiation of food.
There are complex reasons for this communication blackout. Food irradiation, like everything that has to do with nuclear technology, is a loaded topic for big food companies, consumer groups, scientists, radiation plant executives, farmers, and politicians. For many, it raises the specter of Chernobyl and Hiroshima. For others, it is a "cash cow"-a method of disinfesting and preserving foods that will open international markets, extend shelf life, and revolutionize the food production and transport industries.
Well aware of the possibility of consumer backlash, those interested in using food irradiation tread carefully. They assure consumers of the safety and benefits of irradiated foods. They ask the public to rely on the word of various "experts" about the safety and value of food irradiation once the FDA has cleared its use.
Perhaps the most often asked (and argued) question about irradiated food is, "Is it safe to eat?" At the moment, the most accurate answer might be, "It depends on who you ask."
There certainly isn't a shortage of material on the topic. Since food irradiation was first considered in 1916, there have been thousands of studies on the effect of irradiated food on the creatures (or cells) that consume it. It is the interpretation of the results that has been the subject of debate for more than three quarters of a century.
Ironically, in a 1988 letter to Medical Students Against Food Irradiation, George H. Pauli, Ph.D., of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, stated that, ."While one can expect differences of opinion on the desirability of adopting food irradiation processing, there should be no differences on what the facts are."1 Unfortunately for the consumer, the exact opposite has been the case throughout the food irradiation debate. "Facts" are denied, twisted, misquoted, and disregarded with abandon. In the increasingly desperate race to get food irradiation accepted, the real risk-benefit ratio has been obscured.
There are some very real reasons to seek a more efficient technology to preserve and store food. In many areas of the world, entire crops are lost to infestation and decay each year. International and local trade regulations, designed to prevent the transport of dangerous insects, can cripple an agricultural community if a shipment of fruits or vegetables is found to be infested. Salmonella kills hundreds of people worldwide each year, and other food-borne diseases are still significant public health threats both in the United States and abroad.
Many of our existing techniques for combating these problems leave much to be desired. Chemicals that kill insects can, in sufficient quantities, also kill humans. Additives designed to preserve food (such as nitrites and sulfites) also have adverse health effects on those who eat them.
Advocates of food irradiation are quick to suggest that food irradiation can "solve" many of these problems. At varying dosages, ionizing radiation can kill the bacteria that cause food poisoning; delay the ripening of fruits; inhibit sprouting in potatoes and other vegetables; kill insects in grains and fruits; and kill or sterilize parasites in meats (including trichinae, the parasite found in pork), poultry, and fish. It may even make meat more tender.
"Perhaps," say food irradiation's critics. But irradiation is useful for only a small number of foods, and even in those, there are serious drawbacks. Irradiated foods taste, smell, and feel different from non-irradiated foods. The irradiation process causes molecular changes within foods that form toxins, several of which are known carcinogens, while others are totally unique to irradiation and may have unforeseen health risks. Irradiation speeds up the process of decay in some vegetables that have been cut or bruised during harvesting and actually promotes the growth of certain molds and their natural toxins, aflatoxins-the most powerful of all naturally occurring carcinogens.
Most important, several decades of scientific research, carried out by scientists around the world, indicate that irradiated food is not safe for human (or any) consumption. Study after study has shown that eating irradiated food has a variety of serious adverse health effects, including cardiac hemorrhage and kidney damage. In fact, out of the 441 studies the FDA reviewed, the FDA could quote only 5 that were "able to stand alone in the support of safety."
Beyond the health risks, food irradiation is a technology that is ripe for exploitation. It can easily be used to lower the bacteria count in foods that are already too spoiled to eat in order to make them "fit" for sale. There are, at present, no viable ways to determine if foods have been irradiated, or to check the dose used on those that have. In all the national and international rulings regarding food irradiation, no provisions have been made for monitoring or enforcing safety and labeling guidelines.
These concerns, both scientific and legal, have been summarily dismissed by the food industry and, disturbingly, by the very national and international groups that should be examining them most closely. While one can understand the food industry's stand, it is difficult to excuse the actions of the FDA. As Richard Piccioni, Ph.D., senior staff scientist for the public interest group Food and Water, Inc., has pointed out, the FDA's position "is out of line, both with the FDA's legal obligation to protect the health and safety of the American people and with the agency's usual approach to the regulation of carcinogenic substances in food, drugs, and cosmetics."2 Human studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and the Pentagon have been suppressed under the guise of "national security." The process of authorizing food irradiation has not been a process of scientific inquiry. It has been a whitewash, with little or no objective information being given to the public.
This book is meant to illuminate the "missing links" in the food irradiation controversy. It examines the history of food irradiation and the motives of those who advocate its use. It is about the research that documents the dangers of irradiated food, including the data that have been disregarded by the FDA and other groups. It evaluates the potential abuses of this technology and the risks it presents to those who work in, or live near, food irradiation plants. It is a story of money, politics, and the embalming of the American food supply.
- Pauli, G: Letter to the author, May 2, 1988: 2.
- Piccioni, R: Food irradiation: Contaminating our food. The Ecologist 18(2): 49.
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