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Food Irradiation & Nuclear Weapons
The same folks that brought you open-air bomb testing, human radiation experiments, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl are promoting the food irradiation process. Ever since 1986, the FDA, the nuclear industry, and the meat industry have moved to expose almost the entire food supply to nuclear irradiation. But staunch citizen opposition has generally kept the business out of use. For 14 years, Food & Water, and thousands of individuals have kept poultry, fruits, and vegetables free of irradiation. But the struggle is on to keep the meat supply out of this risky business.
According to an August 1997 CBS News poll, 73 percent are against irradiation and 77 percent say they wouldn't eat irradiated food.
How Irradiation Works
Food is irradiated using radioactive gamma ray sources, usually radioactive cobalt-60 or cesium-137, or high-energy electron beams.
After packaging, and being put into large metal boxes, the foods are placed on conveyor belts that move past the radiation sources. The materials are hit with the equivalent of 30 million X-rays, (according to the Spring 1998 Food & Water journal). The industry now uses cobalt-60 supplied by the Canadian company Nordion International, Inc. But the only isotope available in sufficient quantities for large-scale irradiation is cesium-137. When not in use the cobalt or cesium is lowered into cooling ponds.
In the process, which takes about 20 to 30 minutes, the gamma radiation passes through the food, killing all bacteria (helpful as well as harmful) and slowing decay but not leaving the food radioactive.
Irradiators are used on the meats at the end of the production line, after it is already sealed in packages. This is particularly important in ground beef, where bacteria can easily get beneath the surface during grinding. However the industry is lobbying for approval of irradiating unpackaged meats as well.
Cesium-137 is radioactive waste left in huge quantities from nuclear weapons production at Hanford in Washington State and Savannah River, South Carolina. A by-product of nuclear reactor operation, cesium-137 is an extremely hazardous isotope that is deadly for 600 years. It is water-soluble, which makes it terribly dangerous in the event of an accident. As radioactive waste, it is extremely expensive to store and keep out of the biosphere.
The Department of Energy admitted to the House Armed Services Committee in 1983: “The utilization of these radioactive materials simply reduces our waste handling problem…we get some of these very hot elements like cesium and strontium out of the waste” (Michael Colby Editor, “Food Irradiation: Why it Must Be Stopped and How We Can Do It, An Activist Primer,” Food & Water, Inc., 1998). Dr. Rosalie Bertell (the renowned epidemiologist from Toronto) explains that irradiation is a convenient excuse to reprocess spent irradiated fuel rods from weapons production reactors.
FDA spokesman Jim Greene said in 1986 that using the cesium-137 “could substantially reduce the cost of disposing of nuclear waste” (Grand Forks Herald, 28 April 1986).
The gamma rays break up the molecular structure of food, forming positively and negatively charged particles called “free radicals.” The free radicals react with the food to create new chemical substances called “radiolytic products.” The radiolytic products unique to the irradiation process are called “unique radiolytic products” (URPs). Some radiolytic products, such as formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid, and quinones are harmful to human health. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Some URPs are completely new chemicals that have not been identified, let alone tested for toxicity. URPs were somehow given a blanket exemption by the FDA from the safety testing required of other food additives.
Although the FDA says irradiation doesn't change nutritional content, the process does destroy nutrients essential to human health, such as vitamins C, E, K, and B-complex. (For example, vitamin E levels can be reduced by 25 percent after irradiation and vitamin C by 5-10 percent. Irradiation is ineffective against viruses.)
Radiation doses at the levels recommended will not kill all microorganisms. Typically 90 percent may be destroyed and this means that the food still has be treated with care otherwise the remaining organisms will reproduce rapidly. While the government and meat industry claim the flavor and aroma of the treated meats doesn't change, taste testers have disagreed.
Food Editor for the New York Times, Marian Burrows, writes, “Well-cooked conventional meat still tastes better. A blind tasting of irradiated and conventional ground beef, as well as steaks, pork loin and chicken makes it clear that the meat industry has its work cut out for it. …all the irradiated meat smelled funny, especially the ground beef…barnyard odor…like steamed cow” (New York Times, December 10, 1997).
Foods already approved for irradiation include beef, pork, poultry, nuts, potatoes, wheat, wheat flour, fruits, and vegetables, as well as all teas, and 60 dried herbs and spices. The nuclear industry also irradiates medical equipment, food containers, cosmetics, tampons, adhesive bandages, and cleaning solutions for contact lenses. A short chronology of the approval process looks like this:
- In 1953, food irradiation was named part of the so-called “atoms for peace” programs and the Army began research. In 1958 irradiation was classified as a food additive, requiring safety testing.
- In 1963, the FDA approved irradiation for bacon, but later banned it, having learned of “deficiencies” in the Army's research data on which the FDA had based its approval (Ms Magazine, November 1985).
- The FDA, in 1968, re-approved the use of irradiation for bacon, for killing insects in wheat and wheat flour, and for the inhibition of sprouting in potatoes.
- In 1983, the FDA approved sterilization of spices with irradiation. Low-dose irradiation can also be used to inhibit sprouting of onions, garlic, and ginger, and to inhibit the ripening of bananas, avocados, mangoes, papayas, and guavas. Hawaii is being pushed hard to open large irradiators for treating these tropical fruits.
- In 1996, the FDA gave permission for the expanded use of irradiation in the U.S. food supply.
- 1997 saw FDA approval of irradiation for beef, and other red meats such as lamb (MLWK Journal and St. Paul Pioneer, December 3, 1997).
Hide the Label, They Will Buy
In 1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed rules and regulations for labeling the food and for licensing the factories that may do the irradiating. The rule-making process brought to light a horrifying series of accidents and contamination.
The meat industry lobbied vigorously for the 1997 bill on irradiation as an alternative to Clinton administration proposals for greater government authority to recall contaminated meat and punish violators. This is why professional critics of the process are so alarmed.
Former Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Tucker Forman writes that irradiation sterilizes dirty meat, “but it doesn't keep meat from being recontaminated. Every time the meat is handled, from packing plant to grocery store to a home stove, it can come into contact with disease-causing bacteria. The meat might pass through a contaminated grinder, or it could be mixed with scraps that have been sitting in the store for a while” (New York Times, December 5, 1997).
Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest opposes irradiation and writes that irradiated food “will cost more, contain slightly reduced levels of B vitamins, endanger workers, and risk environmental contamination” (letters, NYT, December 8, 1997).
The 1997 bill also changed labeling requirements for all foods treated with irradiation, so that the words: “Treated with Irradiation,” need be no larger than those of the ingredient list.
However, the FDA requires no labeling of irradiated ingredients, so potato soup made with irradiated potatoes, onions, and spices need not be so labeled. Today, the industry is lobbying hard to eliminate all labeling requirements for irradiated foods.
An illustrative parallel is found in the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In Europe, foods containing GMOs require labeling. This may explain why Europeans are more educated on the subject and why the European Union banned the import of U.S. GMOs. However, in the U.S.where no labeling of GMOs is required nearly 65 percent of foods on supermarket shelves contain ingredients that are genetically modified.
FDA Approval No Guarantee of Safety
FDA troubles with prescription drugs don't inspire confidence in its “okay” for irradiation. After 80 deaths were attributed to the heartburn medicine Propulsid, the FDA is considering a severe restriction and the manufacturer has withdrawn it. The action came on the heels of the Rzulin scare. FDA ordered it off the market after it was linked to 63 deaths.
There has been no study of the effects of a long-term diet of irradiated foods. The FDA reviewed 441 toxicity studies to determine the safety of irradiated foods. The team leader in charge of the review testified that all 441 studies were flawed. In fact, the FDA now claims that only 6 of the 441 were “properly conducted, fully adequate by 1980 standards, and able to stand alone in support of safety.”
One of these six showed a statistically significant increase in stillbirth rates among rats fed irradiated wheat. Another reported unexplained deaths and abnormalities in animals given irradiated food, not reaching statistical significance because of the small number of animals in the study. Both studies used irradiation levels well below the proposed levels for human food. Dr. Bertell concludes: “Thus the ‘scientific' evidence in support of food irradiation consists of studies with low irradiation dose, small number of animals, short follow-up times, and negative results. No real scientist would accept these studies as establishing the safety of irradiated foods.”
With this shabby hobbled-together assurance of just five studies, the FDA approved irradiation for the public food supply.
Food caterers, restaurants, retirement homes, childcare centers, hospitals and schools are not required to inform clients that their foods are irradiated (Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 16, 1999).
A Nasty Business with a Bad Record
The facilities that irradiate foods and equipment have caused accidents that must not be repeated. The NRC has recorded 54 accidents at 132 irradiation facilities worldwide since 1974. Unhappily, expanding irradiation will increase the number of radiation accidents by increasing the handling and high-speed transportation of radioactive “source” materials on railroads and highways. It will expose factory surroundings and industry workers to radioactive spills and leaks. Indeed irradiation's “Three Mile Island” has already happened.
In Decatur, Georgia, Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. (RSI) got 252 21-inch canisters of cesium-137 (which were never designed for use at an irradiation facility) from the Department of Energy. In 1988 RSI began using the cesium-137 to irradiate spices. After only two years, a cesium-137 capsule began leaking into the storage pool. It took federal officials six months to find the leak's source. Contaminated workers took the poison home with them. In 1992, the contaminated building was abandoned, and RSI took the word “radiation” out of its name. Now they're “Sterigenics” (Food & Water Journal, Spring, 1998).
Neither the FDA nor the nuclear industry has demonstrated an ability to safeguard the public from its deadly man-made radiation. Without a guarantee of start-to-finish safety, from the handing of radioactive source materials to the long-term consumption of irradiated foods, irradiation should be prohibited.
The priorities for governments and their food inspectors should be: (1) improving food harvesting, storage and manufacturing processes; and (2) on eliminating or containing the contamination that has found its way into the food chain.
John M. Laforge is co-director of Nukewatch (P.O. Box 649, Luck, WI 54853), an anti-war group based in Wisconsin, and editor of its quarterly newsletter The Pathfinder. His articles on nuclear power and militarism have appeared in Z Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Progressive, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The Nonviolent Activist and Sociological Imagination.