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Vegetarians in Paradise
Words from Other Birds

From time to time Vegetarians in Paradise presents informative articles by guest contributors on subjects of interest to vegetarians and vegans. This month we feature Danila Oder, Irradiation Coordinator of BioDemocracy and Organic Consumers Organization, who discusses food irradiation.


by Danila Oder

Why is food irradiation in the news now?

The FDA is currently revising the labeling regulation for all irradiated foods. At present, a tiny label (no bigger than the typeface for the ingredients) is required only for whole foods (like fruits) and whole packaged foods (like a tray of ground meat). Teas, spices, combination foods, and foods served in restaurants and institutions do not have to be labeled. The people who want to use irradiation (primarily the meat industry, but also food processors, public health officials and the Department of Energy) believe labels scare consumers, so they got their friends in Congress to tell the FDA to revise the regulation. One option is for the FDA to remove all the labels.

The USDA approved irradiation for meat and poultry in December 1999. Meat and poultry used in processed foods (like chicken nuggets) don't have to be labeled. Several major beef and chicken companies are test-marketing packaged and labeled irradiated foods. However, because fast-food restaurants and processors don't need to label, these will probably be the first and most important uses for irradiated foods.

Over 30,000 people commented to the FDA during the first round; nearly all demanded clear, prominent and permanent labels of all irradiated food. Expect the FDA to request a second round of comments in Spring 2000.

This second round of comments is critical, because if the FDA chooses to stop requiring labels, there will be no turning back. A flood of irradiated foods will be unleashed on the public. Only organic foods will be safe. Other countries that require labeling will be sued under the Codex Alimentarius, the standard for world trade, because their labels will be 'restraint of trade.' Please contact Danila (see bottom) for more information or to be notified when the comment period begins.

What is food irradiation?

Bombardment of a food by ionizing radiation ("gamma rays") from nuclear material or high-speed electrons from electronic guns, in order to kill bacteria in the food. Gamma rays and high-speed electrons ionize atoms in the food, by knocking off electrons. These electrons ricochet around in the food, breaking up cell walls, slicing and dicing chromosomes, and creating free radicals, which are oxygen atoms missing an electron. These free radicals recombine to form stable compounds, or continue their destructive path.

How is the food affected?

Foods that have been exposed to ionizing radiation have degraded nutrition and counterfeit freshness. Irradiated fats tend to become rancid. Even at low doses, some irradiated foods lose 20% of vitamins such as C, E, K, and B complex. Because irradiation breaks down the food's cell walls, accelerated vitamin losses occur during storage--up to 80%. Thiamine and Vitamin C are the most affected. Ironically, irradiation both creates harmful free radicals and destroys some of the antioxidant vitamins necessary to fight them! Irradiation also damages or destroys the living enzymes in foods.

Free radicals created by irradiation react with food components, creating new radiolytic products (URPs), some of which are toxic or carcinogenic (benzene, formaldehyde, lipid peroxides) and some of which may be unique to irradiated foods. These URPs are created in tiny amounts, but the cumulative effect of many years in the diet has not been studied.

Does food irradiation harm human health?

We don't know. Studies on animals fed irradiated foods have shown many effects, including increased tumors, reproductive failures and kidney damage. Chromosomal abnormalities occurred in four of five children from India who were fed freshly irradiated wheat. These adverse effects may be due to vitamin losses in irradiated foods, toxic chemicals created by the free radicals, or possibly to short-lived induced radioactivity in the food. There have been no human studies longer than 15 weeks, and no other studies on children. The FDA based its approval of irradiation to treat food on only 5 of 441 studies submitted, and these 5 either showed health effects on the animals or had obvious methodological flaws such as irradiation at lower intensities than would be commercially used.

Because of the known vitamin losses, people who rely on fresh foods for their vitamins may suffer vitamin deficiencies. We also know that people who eat irradiated foods will be eating them in larger quantities than the amounts in human studies over a much longer period of time, especially if the FDA stops requiring labels.

The FDA should require labels on all irradiated foods so that people can choose to avoid irradiated foods, and so that public health officials can determine if people who ate these foods and people who avoided them have different health problems. Without labels, epidemiologists will never be able to determine the health effects of irradiated foods on people who ate them.

What are the environmental effects of irradiation?

Irradiation using nuclear materials (cobalt-60 and cesium-137, a byproduct of nuclear weapons manufacture) already has a bad track record. In Georgia, radioactive water escaped from an irradiation facility; the taxpayers were stuck with $47 million in cleanup costs. In New Jersey, radioactive water was poured into drains that emptied into the public sewer system. Numerous worker exposures have occurred worldwide. Irradiation using electron beams does not have these effects, although the risks to the workers are the same.

Does irradiation really have the promise of providing clean food?

Irradiation is used to kill bacteria, primarily from animal feces. Irradiated feces is still feces. Irradiation doesn't kill all bacteria; those that survive are radiation-resistant. Eventually these bacteria will require higher doses of radiation. Irradiation doesn't kill the bacterium that causes botulism, or viruses. It can't be used on dairy products, a major source of food poisoning. If the labels are removed, irradiation will be used very widely because producers will 'follow the leader' and irradiate to prevent themselves from liability for food poisoning, no matter how remote the possibility. The costs (for example, 3-6 cents/lb. for ground beef) will be passed on to the consumer.

Are there other solutions?

In a 1997 CBS nationwide poll, 77% of US consumers did not want irradiated food. This public resistance is why food trade associations have been plotting to eliminate all requirements for labeling irradiated food. Irradiation is not the only option for providing clean and sustainable food. Cleaning up filthy slaughter houses, slowing down processing lines, increasing the number of federal meat inspectors, and encouraging local and organic agriculture instead of factory farming are just a few proposals that can lead to long-term food safety solutions without the risks of irradiation.

If irradiation will be used primarily for meat and poultry, why should vegetarians care?

  • Irradiation is already legal for wheat, flour, fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices and teas. A food industry coalition asked the FDA (in August 1999) to extend approval to fresh juices, seeds, sprouts, prepared fresh vegetables and frozen foods.

  • Although the big dollar savings and public relations value come from meat irradiation, some food producers want to irradiate vegetable foods to kill insects/bacteria or to increase storage life. The fear of lawsuits for food poisoning will be a major motivation once the technology is legal, approved and available. The current requirement for labels is the major road block.

  • A Hawaii company (Hawaii Pride) is currently building an electron-beam irradiator for use on papayas and small amounts of other fruits, to open in May 2000. The Hawaiian fruit industry will closely watch consumer reaction.

  • In late 1998, Hawaii activists narrowly lost a referendum to stop a nuclear irradiator, also to be used primarily for papayas. This irradiator may be built.

  • You are already eating irradiated spices and teas. Some supplement manufacturers may be using irradiated garlic.

  • Irradiation depletes vitamins and damages or kills the living enzymes. This is very important for fresh food that is purchased to be eaten fresh.

  • At this time, only whole foods (like a papaya or a package of ground beef) need to be labeled. Prepared foods with irradiated ingredients like a supermarket fruit salad (with papaya) or beef stew do not need to be labeled. All restaurant and institutional foods are not labeled.

  • The FDA is currently revising the labeling regulations. They may stop requiring labels on any food. If that happens, vegetarians will be eating irradiated foods in unknown quantities unless they eat 100% organic. Vegetarians who eat unlabeled irradiated foods will never know if the irradiated food is affecting their health.

  • Irradiation facilities are built to make a profit, which means their owners will solicit packagers and producers of fruits and vegetables, and products containing fruits and vegetables, to use irradiation.

  • The use of irradiation on any food raises many socioeconomic issues that concern vegetarians. For example, if irradiation is established, plants will be genetically engineered for radiation tolerance. These special seeds will be patented, increasing the centralization of our food supply. Electron-beam irradiators require a steady and reliable supply of electricity. This may not be available in the Third World, where nuclear irradiators will be preferred.

  • Irradiation is not currently legal for organic foods. But in a few years, once public concern for organic standards dies down and irradiation is in widespread use for conventional foods without a labeling requirement, the FDA will may well try again to allow organic foods to be irradiated.

  • Food irradiation is primarily about protecting the profitability of the factory farming system. Irradiation would give factory farmers and inhumane slaughterhouses a few more years of operation before irradiation-resistant bacteria put meat irradiators out of business. By creating a much 'cleaner' product, irradiation shields the consumer from recognizing the source of the meat. Without irradiation, these companies would have to face the consequences of their dirty business sooner.

For more information about this subject, readers may visit http://www.purefood.org/irradlink.html or emailto: danila@purefood.org

Click here for past Words from Other Birds Articles

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