Consumer groups question safety of food irradiation
Irradiated foods present a danger to Colorado’s consumers, school children and local ranchers, according to “A Dangerous Deal: How Irradiated Foods Put Colorado Consumers at Risk,” a report released last week by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group – or, CoPIRG – and Public Citizen.
“Despite growing evidence that irradiation presents serious health risks, this product is being offered to Coloradans without any attempt to educate them about the potential side-effects involved,” said Ben Davis, CoPIRG’s municipal advocate.
Locally, City Market carries a brand of irradiated ground beef called SureBeam. The product represents about 1 percent of ground beef sales at the Dillon store.
“(Irradiation) is just another way of killing bacteria,” said Rick Chapman of City Market’s meat department.
SureBeam irradiates its ground beef using an electron beam, and the process is supposed to be safe and environmentally friendly.
Alpine Natural Foods in Frisco, however, does not carry any irradiated foods.
“The meats we carry here are all organic. To fall under the organic standards, it cannot be irradiated,” said Kathy Jones, the store’s co-owner.
“It’s done a lot to kill the bugs in dried spices. We carry a line of bulk spices that guarantees that there’s no irradiation,” Jones added.
“For our other companies that we deal with, we ask them about irradiation in cereals and things like that. I don’t think there’s been enough research on it.”
Irradiation exposes food to radiation levels that are equivalent to several million chest X-rays as a method of killing disease-causing microbes like E. coli.
No radiation remains in the food, but studies have shown that the process introduces chemicals into food that wouldn’t otherwise be there and increases the concentrations of some existing chemicals.
According to the report’s authors, some of these substances are suspected catalysts for birth defects, reproductive dysfunction, liver damage, and may also encourage a faster growth rate in cancerous cells.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the food irradiation industry claim the technique is a valuable way to combat an increase in food-borne illness.
“We endorse irradiation as safe when used at levels in accordance with FDA standards,” said Matt Baun, spokesperson for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service.
“Irradiation has been around for about 50 years, has been used in hospital foods and used by NASA for astronaut foods. There’s been irradiation in food spices for a long, long time. We’re confident that it is a technology that’s safe to use. It’s probably the most studied food process.”
Irradiation opponents believe the best way to fight food-borne illness is through better regulations on how food is produced, inspected, stored and handled during cooking.
“In the processing plants, they’re using irradiation instead of keeping things cleaner. If they keep things clean, they wouldn’t have to do that. It’s a shortcut,” Jones said.
In Colorado, some King Soopers, City Market, Avanza and Sun Mart stores offer irradiated meat and papayas to consumers.
Federal labeling requires that irradiated foods be labeled, “treated by radiation,” along with the international symbol for radiation – the radura. This symbol resembles a flower with two petals inside a broken circle.
Irradiated beef in schools
On May 29, the USDA announced the approval of irradiated ground beef for the National School Lunch Program. As of Jan. 1, 2004, school districts will have the option of buying this product for 13 to 20 cents more per pound from the USDA through their respective state boards of education.
The federal labeling requirements for irradiated food only apply to food sold in stores, and there is no requirement that the school districts notify parents or separate these foods from non-irradiated foods.
Colorado has taken a neutral stance on this issue, allowing school districts to decide for themselves whether or not to purchase this product. To date, no school districts have taken a stance for or against.
“The last thing students need is another item on the school lunch menu that is nutritionally bankrupt,” said Monique Mikhail, a national organizer with Public Citizen.
“Schools should focus on providing healthy, wholesome meals for children, not spending extra money on an unnecessary and possibly unsafe product.”
CoPIRG and Public Citizen want schools serving irradiated food to provide written notification to parents, have signage in the cafeteria, and provide a non-irradiated meal option.
Colorado ranchers impacted
Report authors said that irradiating meats might adversely affect Colorado ranchers. By exposing food to radiation, food distributors are able to increase their shelf life and ship the food longer distances.
Many food irradiation facilities are located outside of the U.S., and local ranchers will be forced to compete in an increasingly international market.
“Irradiation is not the solution to providing safe meat,” said Sue Jarrett, a Colorado rancher. “Cleaning up the slaughterhouses that process enormous amounts of animals at a reckless pace in unsanitary conditions is the solution.”