Zapped Meats Headed
Food scares renew efforts to irradiate beef, chicken
CAROL NESS / SF Chronicle 10nov02
Please see this file for information
Justin Blok spotted the tiny words "treated by irradiation" on the box of frozen burger patties and screeched.
"I'm not going to be eating them anymore. I don't want to wake up one morning with an extra head growing out of my neck," said Blok, a clerk at Barbecues Galore in Walnut Creek, one of three Bay Area outlets for Omaha Steaks' irradiated gourmet beef.
Blok's reaction to eating zapped food is typical. But people who think that irradiated foods have no future here in the Organic Kingdom are wrong. In a rare case of California following Eastern and Midwestern food trends, irradiated edibles are starting to show up here, and many more are on the way.
This year alone, Californians have eaten millions of pounds of Hawaiian papaya and other tropical fruits that were irradiated to kill agricultural pests, as well as at least a quarter of a million specialty hamburgers that were irradiated to destroy deadly bacteria like E. coli. Often, consumers don't even know the food has been irradiated.
If West Coast supermarkets follow their East Coast counterparts, irradiated beef and some irradiated chicken may soon start showing up in grocery store meat cases. In the past two months, since 19 million pounds of raw hamburger were recalled for possible E. coli contamination, at least 12 Eastern and Midwestern supermarket chains have signed on to sell irradiated meats.
Irradiation, a process in which food is exposed to ionizing electron beams, is seen by health authorities as the best defense against 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses every year. The process also is being pushed by meat packers and markets, which are vulnerable to costly lawsuits and damage awards for selling food, and by the irradiation industry, which has invested heavily in equipment since the mid-'90s and has yet to see it pay off.
But many consumers remain leery, fearful of new technology and suspicious that irradiation leaves food radioactive -- although it doesn't. Others worry about the long-term effects of irradiation. And some see the process as a way to mask fecal contamination caused by the way food, especially beef, is processed.
As Steven Bjerklie, former editor of Meat & Poultry magazine, put it in the meat industry expose "Fast Food Nation": "I don't want to be served irradiated feces along with my meat."
HEADING TO MARKET
There's no doubt more irradiated foods are headed for the market:
- Major meatpackers are irradiating beef or gearing up to do so. That includes Cargill's Excel and Tyson's IBP, two of the nation's top three meat distributors. Huisken Meat Co. in Minnesota was the first meatpacker to use the process and says its irradiated hamburger is now sold in 3,200 stores in the Midwest and East.
- Some smaller restaurant chains are starting to sell irradiated burgers. Dairy Queen in Minnesota just expanded a small test program into 43 outlets. And Champps, the fast-casual chain with 49 restaurants, including one in Southern California, is selling irradiated burgers.
- More irradiation plants are being built in the United States and around the world.
Two California plants in Gilroy (Santa Clara County) and Tustin (Orange County), owned by the Belgian firm IBA, use gamma rays on about 100 million pounds of spices a year and could be quickly reconfigured to handle fresh foods.
Another large food irradiation plant is in final testing in the Los Angeles- area city of Vernon. It's the fourth U.S. plant built by SureBeam, a San Diego spin-off of the Titan Corp., which uses electron beams and X-rays to irradiate food.
SureBeam also helped build a plant in Hawaii for irradiating papayas and other fruits. The company also is negotiating with food processors in 11 countries and recently closed deals in Vietnam and Thailand.
- The Food and Drug Administration is believed to be close to allowing the irradiation of all deli meats and other ready-to-eat foods, including juice, bagged salads, cut fruits and peeled vegetables. The agency also is considering seafood.
- Schools, until now off-limits, may be allowed to serve irradiated meat for lunch before the year is out, under a decision moving forward in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
- The FDA may change labeling requirements on irradiated food, allowing the term "cold pasteurization" as a substitute for "treated by irradiation." The agency rejected that wording before, saying it would confuse people. The food industry has lobbied hard for the change, contending the word irradiation itself is what's scaring consumers.
QUESTION OF LABELING
Just a few years ago, customers revolted against stores testing irradiated foods and drove the products out of the mass markets. Because of strong consumer resistance, retailers of irradiated foods have mostly avoided Northern California markets.
But Safeway, which sells irradiated papayas in 400 stores in Southern California and Arizona, and Albertsons say they are considering carrying irradiated ground beef.
Other irradiated foods already are here, though they aren't always visible. Spices and ingredients like dried garlic have long been irradiated.
Federal law says fruits, meats, chicken and other irradiated foods must be marked with the flowerlike radura symbol and the words "treated by irradiation. " But they aren't always labeled, especially produce, or the small print can be hard to see. In addition, restaurants are not required to list irradiated ingredients on menus.
Even careful vendors don't always know they're selling irradiated food. Irradiated tropical fruits called rambutan recently popped up next to organic figs at the Berkeley Bowl, much to the surprise of owner and produce-buyer Glenn Yasuda, whose policy is not to sell irradiated foods. After checking, he discovered that his wholesaler didn't know either -- the boxes weren't labeled.
"People (here) are against it," he said.
But the public's attitude about irradiated foods seems to be softening.
One reason is this year's mammoth meat recalls -- the ConAgra hamburger meat, for E. coli, and more recently 27 million pounds of deli turkey and chicken, for listeria.
Another reason is that last year's terror attacks heightened people's fears about tainted foods -- at the same time irradiation was showcased as a germ killer when it was used against anthrax contamination in mail.
The U.S. government, along with some state health departments and universities, including UC Davis, also have been running public campaigns touting the benefits of irradiation.
Minnesota has done more than any other state to push acceptance of irradiated beef. The state had the first commercial meat processor, Huisken, and the first fast-food outlet, Dairy Queen. Minnesota's health department has gone all out with a public-information campaign to convince people that irradiation is good for them. Now, it's planning a campaign in the schools to win over kids, parents and teachers.
California has taken a less gung-ho approach, going along with federal rules but not proselytizing.
"We've had a lot of E. coli-contaminated meat recalled, so we think irradiation of meat products would be beneficial," said Jim Waddell, chief of food safety for the California Department of Health Services. "We also recognize that it's a sensitive issue, and some people are philosophically opposed."
IRRADIATION'S BIG BOOSTER
note: If you think
Northern California is home to one of the nation's most ardent supporters of irradiation: Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research at UC Davis.
Bruhn is absolutely convinced that irradiation is safe. And it's necessary, she says, because there's no room for error when it comes to E. coli: Just three or four of the tiny bacteria can kill.
"I think it's a basic right of the public to choose safety-enhanced food," Bruhn says. "Just as we can buy pasteurized milk and juice, we should be able to buy pasteurized beef. I have some in my freezer, and I'd like to be able to buy it fresh here."
Bruhn has been the target of anti-irradiation activists because she has a $590,000 federal grant to educate consumers about the benefits of irradiation in California and eight other states.
Claims that irradiation hasn't been studied enough are bunk, she says, and she can rattle off the tests done over several decades. In one, she said, rats bred to be especially vulnerable to cancer were fed 100 percent irradiated food through 40 generations -- with no harm.
Irradiation does change the chemistry of foods, she says, but the new chemicals produced aren't there in sufficient quantity to cause harm. Cooking changes food's chemistry, too, she pointed out, and strawberries contain arsenic. But not enough to make a difference.
Public acceptance, she said, is just a matter of learning the facts. Some people will never accept irradiation, she said, but "I think 80 percent would prefer it once they hear what it's all about."
SKEPTICS WANT TO WAIT
Consumer groups opposing irradiation, including Public Citizen, say what "the facts" are remains in dispute. They contend federal authorities have based their approval on selected studies, ignoring others that raise questions about how irradiation affects the nutrients in food and creates radiolytic byproducts that can cause genetic or cell damage in test animals. Other than astronauts, few humans have eaten diets chock full of irradiated foods for very long, they say.
"We have issues with the long-term consequences of having people eat this food because there are so many unknowns," said Patty Lovera, deputy director of Public Citizen's energy and environment program.
Bruhn's prediction about public acceptance may be optimistic, at least for now, in free-range Northern California, home of the organic/clean food revolution. People tend to be health-conscious, concerned about the environmental effects of more gamma-ray plants, philosophically opposed to any interference with food or skeptical of U.S. government assurances that irradiation is safe.
"I've seen things introduced into the market after they'd been tested, and a year later, people are getting sick from it," said Blok, the Barbecues Galore clerk, citing the fen-phen diet drug as an example.
Other skeptics have mentioned bovine growth hormone as another additive that went into wide use and later turned out to cause problems.
"If in 10 years, people say, 'I eat irradiated beef,' and they don't have golf-ball-sized tumors on their eyeballs, maybe then," Blok said.
At the rate that supermarkets are jumping on the bandwagon, it's clear they see a growing market for irradiated foods.
"It's an alternative for customers who don't want to have to be concerned about all the food-borne illness that (have) cropped up this year," said Rich Savner of Pathmark stores, which took the plunge Oct. 1 and began selling a small amount of irradiated ground beef in its 143 stores in and around New Jersey. "This eliminates that concern."
Safeway got its feet wet with irradiated papayas in Phoenix and in its Southern California Vons. People are buying them, said spokesman Brian Dowling at Safeway's Pleasanton headquarters. And no one's protested.
Albertsons is considering selling irradiated meat and possibly flowers, according to spokeswoman Stacia Levenfeld, but not because customers are clamoring.
"That's one of the reasons we haven't rushed into the market," she said. "We haven't had overwhelming demand -- or even many requests."
But markets like Whole Foods, which cater to organically oriented eaters, say they won't sell irradiated foods.
"It's part of our company core values," said James Parker, regional produce director for Whole Foods. "No one knows enough about the long-term impact. And still, even if we do and once we do, it's designed to destroy microbes that are harmful -- who knows what else it does?"
At Andronico's, the 11-store Bay Area chain, meat and seafood vice president Marc Kane is skeptical.
"Right now, I don't think Joe Consumer is ready for irradiated meat," he said. That could change five years or so down the road, he said, but meantime they're watching to see what happens back East.
"It started back there," he said. "Let's see if it stays there."
Irradiation questions and answers
Here are some of the frequently asked questions about food irradiation:
Q: What is irradiation?
A: It's ionizing radiation, a high-energy beam delivered in controlled doses. The radiation is produced in three ways:
- Gamma rays. Food is exposed to radioactive cobalt 60, which gives off gamma rays.
- Electron beam. Radiation is created by accelerating electrons to 99 percent of the speed of light.
- X-rays. These are more powerful, concentrated beams than what's used in a dentist's office and can penetrate thicker foods than electron beams.
Q: How does irradiation work?
A: The radiant energy breaks some molecular bonds in whatever it hits, creating free radicals that kill bacteria and insects. Radiation does not affect viruses.
The level of radiation used is not powerful enough to make the food radioactive.
It also kills enzymes and slows natural processes such as the sprouting of potatoes and the ripening of fruits. It extends the shelf life of berries from a few days to more than two weeks.
Q: Are nutrients affected?
A: The amounts of some vitamins, including thiamine, are slightly reduced.
Q: What about taste, smell and color?
A: Irradiation can make chicken and turkey white meat turn pink, and can make beef redder than usual. Meats also can take on a sweet aroma, like barbecued corn, which is then dispelled by oxygen. Consumer studies have found that 60 percent of people can detect the smell of irradiated meat, 40 percent - can't.
The Chronicle Food staff pan-fried Omaha Steaks' irradiated burgers and found nothing unusual about the texture, taste or smell.
Q: Who supports irradiation and why?
A: The U.S. government, World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Medical Association and the food-processing industry support irradiation because it kills illness-causing bacteria in foods, especially meats. Included are E. coli, listeria, campylobacter, salmonella and others, which sicken some 76 million Americans every year and kill 5,000.
Irradiation is also used on imported fruits and vegetables to keep out foreign crop pests.
Safety testing started in the 1950s, on rats, dogs, hamsters and some humans - including astronauts. Government safety authorities say no ill effects were detected. Any chemical changes in the food, including free radicals, are at low levels and can be compared with changes caused by cooking, they say.
Q: Who opposes it and why?
A: Most consumers have been wary of irradiation, and efforts to introduce irradiated foods a few years ago were unsuccessful. But a small telephone survey done after Sept. 11, 2001, indicated terrorism-inspired fears about food safety made people more inclined to accept irradiation.
The main groups opposed to irradiation are Public Citizen, founded by Ralph Nader, and the Minnesota-based Organic Consumers Association.
Their main arguments:
- The free radicals caused by irradiation damage vitamins and enzymes and combine with chemicals in food to create toxins, some of which -haven't been studied.
- Science -hasn't proven that a diet rich in irradiated foods -doesn't cause subtle damage to DNA, reproductive or other tissues over time.
- The Food and Drug Administration has based its approval on flawed studies, while ignoring many other tests that suggest potential problems.
- Irradiation covers up serious contamination problems in meat and poultry processing that should be fixed.
- Gamma ray irradiation causes environmental hazards from cobalt waste.
Sources: FDA, USDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UC Davis Center for Consumer Research, SureBeam Corp., Public Citizen, Organic Consumers Association
Any irradiated product sold must carry a distinctive logo called a radura and a statement that the product was irradiated.
Foods approved for irradiation
The federal Food and Drug Administration and/or the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved these foods for irradiation. Except for spices, only a small, although growing, percentage of these foods actually is irradiated.
- 1963: Wheat flour (control of mold)
- 1964: White potatoes (to inhibit sprouting)
- 1986: Pork (kill trichina parasites)
- 1986: Fruit and vegetables (insect control, increase shelf life)
- 1986: Herbs and spices (sterilization)
- 1992: Fresh poultry (reduce bacteria)
- 2000: Fresh or frozen meat (reduce bacteria)
- 2002: Petitions are pending on deli meats and other ready-to-eat foods, including bagged salads, peeled vegetables
- A machine like this one generates electrons that are accelerated, bent and scanned over products moving along a conveyor belt.
- The electron beams are guided by magnets from the top down.
- A second machine underneath the conveyor belt, just after the first one, shoots from the bottom up.
40,000 pounds of food per hour can be irradiated.
Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration, UC Davis Center for Consumer Research
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