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By Hank Hoffman
T HE FOOD AND DRUG Administration approved a petition Dec. 2 to allow the exposure of meat to low doses of radiation to kill bacteria like the dangerous E. coli 0157:H7. But not everyone is crazy about the prospect of nuked burgers; at least one consumer advocacy group is vowing to fight the practice with boycotts.
Food irradiation is safe, says the FDA. But Food & Water, a Vermont-based environmental and nutrition advocacy group, hotly disagrees. Michael Colby, the group's director, says they will target any food company that adopts the technology. Colby accuses the FDA of caving in to political pressure and criticizes another consumer advocate for not opposing irradiation strenuously enough. "Where's the science? I think they've gone way out on a limb and approved the technology without scientific proof that it is safe," he says.
Arthur Whitmore, an FDA spokesperson, disagrees. He says the agency looked at "hundreds of studies." "We don't think consumers should be afraid of irradiated product. We don't find any safety problems with it at all," declares Whitmore. Food irradiation has long been controversial. The technology, an outgrowth of the Cold War Atoms for Peace program, has been promoted by nuclear-power advocates and meat industry lobbyists and has strong supporters in the government.
In its most common form, food is exposed to low-dosage cobalt-60 radiation that kills microorganisms--both dangerous and benign--by disrupting their DNA structure. Irradiation is widely used to sterilize medical equipment as well as such consumer products as baby-bottle nipples and cotton swabs. Widescale irradiation of food, however, has long been stalled for lack of government approval, questions about safety, and consumer resistance.
Over the last decade, both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have approved irradiation of dry herbs and spices, pork, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. But permission to irradiate red meat was lacking until FDA's recent action. (Radiation is considered a food additive subject to FDA regulation because its use may change some characteristics of the food.) Approval for red meat has been considered crucial: While irradiation primarily extends shelf life on other products, with something like ground beef the destruction of bacteria can be marketed as a lifesaver.
Support for irradiation has escalated in the meat industry in the wake of contamination scandals like the recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef by Hudson Foods this past summer.
Colby, irradiation's most vocal critic, fears acceptance of the procedure will bring not only nuclear proliferation, but also environmental and worker safety problems. The process, he says, causes nutritional loss and effects chemical changes that introduce carcinogens into the foods. Instead of the government exposing meat to radiation at the end of the production process, Colby wants it to force meat producers to clean up the rest of their processes. "[Irradiation] is another step into an industrial food supply, an increasingly corporatized and monopolistic food supply that inevitably wreaks havoc on health, safety, and community control," says Colby.
Food & Water has kept irradiation proponents in the meat industry on the defensive with emotionally charged ad campaigns targeting companies that express interest in the process. Colby promises more of the same: "If we see signs of support, we will target them with all the force and vim and vigor we can muster." F&W already is launching a campaign against Monfort Meat after its corporate parent, Con Agra, endorsed the FDA decision.
Conspicuously not joining Colby at the barricades is Michael Jacobson, director of the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jacobson says he opposes irradiation, but he earns Colby's ire for refusing to rule it out as a "last resort" if other technologies fail. "That's what industry is always looking for--some consumer advocate they can get to soft-pedal their opposition," says Colby. He notes that a recent editorial in the industry trade magazine Meat & Poultry counseled "industry leaders" to "enlist the aid" of the CSPI to "present credible and compelling arguments why irradiation must be a part" of the effort to ensure safe meat.
"We're in touch with many of the victims--parents of children who have died--and we believe it's extraordinarily important to prevent food poisoning," says Jacobson, adding that there are "plenty of other processes" that focus on cleanliness and should be used to create a safe food supply before irradiation.
While he agrees with irradiation proponents that the nutritional losses and chemical changes to meat are not significant, Jacobson says "the process is inherently a risky one. We're concerned about the risks to workers and the environment if you're building hundreds of radiation facilities around the country," Jacobson says. "It's almost inevitable that accidents will happen."
John Masefield, chairman and CEO of Isomedix--the company that petitioned the FDA to approve red meat irradiation--says fears about safety and proliferation are misplaced. F&W has cited 1974 incidents at Isomedix's New Jersey plant--radioactive water being flushed down a toilet and a worker receiving a near-lethal radiation dose--as reasons why safety assurances can't be trusted.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission also proposed a "substantial civil penalty" against the company in 1987 for "serious violations of safety requirements."
"Most of the incidents you hear from Food & Water and others who play fast and loose with the truth date back 15 to 30 years," says Masefield. The 1987 incident was an "administrative violation" that did not threaten worker safety, according to Masefield. "The process is so safe that the NRC doesn't require an environmental impact statement when you establish a site," says Masefield.
Yet unanswered questions that remain following the FDA's decision include: Will irradiation be done at meat processing plants or off-site? How will the USDA and the NRC coordinate oversight? And, most important, will consumers buy irradiated meat?
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From the January 22-28, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.