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Nuking Food For Profit
H idden deep within the bowels of the recently passed 2002 Farm Bill—unbeknownst to most consumers, farmers, and taxpayers—was Section 1079E, granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to approve any technology capable of killing pathogens as a form of “pasteurization.” Corporate agribusiness has been drooling for years over just such a redefinition in order to circumvent pesky consumer warning labels and sidestep clean-up of filthy factory farm conditions. Another insidious provision buried in the 2002 Farm Bill Section 442 goes even further, forbidding the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from restricting distribution of irradiated foods through mandated national school lunch and child nutrition programs. Behind both ideas was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who enjoyed eating irradiated pork as a Navy fighter pilot back in the 1960s and even helped cut the ribbon at a state-of-the-art food irradiation plant in Sioux City. Now that they have their foot in the door of the nation’s entire food supply, the corporate food irradiators are off and running.
Already this summer, test marketing of irradiated burgers began at several Dairy Queen restaurants in Minnesota. Schwan’s is now delivering irradiated meat to people’s doorsteps along with their popular ice cream, while the Pick ’n Save grocery chain has proposed irradiation to its customers throughout the Midwest. In the Chicago area one can enjoy irradiated tropical fruit from Hawaii at Carrot Top supermarkets. Much of this nuked food comes courtesy of Sure-Beam, a recent spinoff of defense contractor, Titan Corporation. Sure-Beam’s glossy carefree brochure claims that irradiated food keeps NASA astronauts healthy and that its electron beams use exactly the same electricity as a microwave oven or a television set. While consumer acceptance of irradiated hamburger has been lukewarm at best (the horrid “steamed cow” taste may be partly to blame…), Sure Beam is not worried since—as reported in the New York Times —it will probably be able to dump whatever mystery meat remains at taxpayer expense onto children’s school lunch trays.
This is hardly the first time children have been fed irradiated food against their will. In 1997 a class action lawsuit was settled out of court for $1.85 million involving Quaker Oats and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). More than 100 boys who were wards of the state and housed at the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts throughout the 1940s and 1950s were unwitting guinea pigs in nutritional experiments involving cereal laced with radioactive iron and calcium. According to the plaintiffs, the children were lured into the secret tests on joining the Fernald Science Club, their parents signing consent forms that said nothing about radioactive exposure. Of course, this latest nationwide nuclear fieldtrial will have no waiver either, since eating nuked food is now USDA approved.
Whole irradiated foods sold in grocery stores are currently required to bear the “radura” irradiation symbol, which looks more like a harmless green flower in a broken circle (strikingly similar to the logo of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and can be as small as your fingernail. No consumer warning label, though, is required for irradiated ingredients mixed into other items—such as baby food, frozen lasagna, canned soup, and fruit juice—or for entrees served in restaurants, hospitals, and schools. Consumer right to know has been thrown out the window and a $10 million anti-label PR blitz by the nuclear industry aims to keep it that way. Many people are already eating irradiated foods on a daily basis without their consent or even awareness. Other consumer products, such as tampons, band aids, cosmetics, straws, and cleaning solutions for contact lenses, have also been given the “green light” for irradiation treatment.
This drive towards zapping everything we consume with ionizing radiation is actually part of a larger corporate campaign to shift food production to the global South. USDA officials have argued that irradiation is “absolutely necessary” for global food trade since it facilitates long distance transport. Irradiation does extend the shelf-life of produce by killing pathogens and other pests and even masking the contamination and putrefication of meat. If one can kill off the bacteria responsible for that “awful stench,” people won’t recognize botulism anymore. Western governments have also been quite eager to put taxpayer money where their corporate mouth is through foreign aid technology transfer. For instance, in 1987 the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) earmarked $4.8 million towards construction of a food irradiation plant in Thailand to zap shrimp, mangoes, and papayas destined for the global food market. Anticipating this trend, Brazil has become the kingpin of food irradiation with 11 operating ionization plants and another 21 under construction. Irradiated food is already available in 33 countries—everything from flour to beans.
Another powerful cheerleader for food irradiation is the nuclear industry, ever eager to find lucrative civilian applications for its military handiwork. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program first proposed using radioactive isotopes for food safety back in the 1950s. In the 1970s it was the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that was plugging food irradiation under its Byproduct Utilization Program. By 1980 an “expert committee,” convened by the World Health Organization (WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and—surprise, surprise—the corporate-dominated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) gave its unequivocal blessing to food irradiation. As early as 1986 the FDA had approved irradiation for spices, fruits, and vegetables and this was extended to poultry by 1990. In 1997 the FDA also approved irradiation of red meat, after receiving a petition from Isomedix, a New Jersey-based firm that already operated 16 facilities for irradiating medical equipment and empty food containers.
Conventional food irradiation uses cobalt 60 and cesium 137—both nuclear waste byproducts—to generate high energy gamma rays. In a typical facility a human operator moves aluminum food racks into a chamber with six foot thick walls and then exposes the target to a rack of “pencils” lifted out of a water pool. The inherent dangers of such a process should be patently obvious. To give but one example, in 1988 Radiation Sterilizers Inc. (RSI) in Dekalb, Georgia received a shipment of 252 “hand me down” cesium 137 canisters from the U.S. Dept of Energy (DOE) for irradiation of spices. Within two years one of the canisters was leaking into the storage pool, workers were exposed—tracking radioactive water into their cars and homes—and by 1992 the facility was so contaminated it had to be abandoned, leaving taxpayers with a $47 million clean-up bill.
A more recent food irradiation tactic uses an “e beam” from a particle accelerator, but this only penetrates food up to an inch and a half and larger/thicker food items (like steak) often require extra—and more expensive—x-rays. Titan Corporation, which came up with the “e beam” idea from its ongoing Star Wars research, receives a whopping 80 percent of its revenue from U.S. taxpayers through DOE and the Pentagon. Like many public schools, the University of Wisconsin, currently conducting Star Wars research involving creation of hypernetic DNA-based computers, holds $53,000 worth of Titan stock in its Trust Fund, and is most likely serving irradiated food to students, staff, and faculty through its various corporate-supplied cafeterias.
The number of microbes that are killed by a radiation dose depends entirely on the time and length of exposure—with 100 percent mortality rarely achieved. Irradiation, like chlorine, does not necessarily destroy spores, cysts, viruses, prions, or other naturally resistant pathogens. It also does not physically remove the manure, urine, pus, vomit, toxins, tumors, and other waste on food, nor can it prevent future contamination from dirty utensils, cutting surfaces, unwashed hands, etc. Of course, the “collateral damage” to “nontarget organisms” is already painfully apparent, as witnessed by the health impact on government workers in DC forced to handle irradiated mail in the wake of the post 9/11 anthrax attacks. Media reports indicate that over 100 U.S. Postal Service employees and over 250 Congressional and Executive Branch staffers have suffered a wide variety of irradiation symptoms, from bloody noses and chronic headaches to skin lesions and tingling sensations.
Unlike normal cooking, when food is nuked numerous chemical bonds are ruptured, leaving behind a trail of free radicals, ions, and other radiolytic byproducts. Some of these compounds are already known to be dangerous to human health when ingested, such as formaldehyde, octane, formic acid, butane, methyl propane, and benzene. Others are only identified as “unique radiolytic products” (URPs)— cyclobutanones such as 2-DCB being an example—and these are not found naturally anywhere on earth except in irradiated foodstuffs. There has been no federal safety testing and little scientific investigation of URPs. They are known to persist for up to a decade in food and some experts fear that is long enough to trigger cancers and birth defects.
Irradiation also destroys a whole array of vitamins, enzymes, healthy bacteria, essential fatty acids, and other nutritional elements found naturally in whole foods. The free radicals produced by irradiation are really “thug chemicals,” rupturing cell membranes, mutating others, and destroying vitamins. For instance, up to 91 percent of vitamin B6 in beef, 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs, 50 percent of vitamin A in carrot juice, 37 percent of vitamin B1 in oats, and 30 percent of vitamin C in potatoes is lost with irradiation. Corporate agribusiness is quick to counter that processing and cooking also destroy vitamins, but do we really want to accelerate this downward spiral in nutritional value? Needless to say, the food giants have a vested interest in fortifying the same foods they degrade and marketing nutritional supplements. An estimated 40 percent of people in the U.S. already pop vitamins pills. Surveys have shown that irradiation reduces and distorts flavor, too—even IBP, one of the nation’s biggest meatpackers, had serious concerns about the fact that irradiation “noticeably” altered the color and taste of meat ( New York Times).
For agribusiness giants like Smithfield, Cargill/Excel, and Conagra, though, irradiation is the “silver bullet” that will let them avoid costly meat recalls and avoid any clean-up of rampant contamination in factory farming. If one reads recent exposes—such as Gail Eisnitz’s Slaughterhouse— one is hard put to find much progress in today’s meat packing industry. In fact, many experts argue that modern livestock and meatpacking practices actually make disease problems worse. For example, A recent Cornell University study revealed that force feeding cows grain rations in feedlots prior to slaughter—versus natural green fodder on pasture—increases E. coli contamination by up to 300 percent. Another common agribusiness practice of dunking chicken carcasses into the “fecal soup” of chill tanks to increase their store weight with added water prior to shipment to retailers almost guarantees bacterial outbreaks. Just a month before Thanksgiving, Pilgrim’s Pride recalled 27.5 million pounds of ready-to-eat chicken and turkey products because of Listeria contamination that had already killed 7 people in 7 states ( New York Times).
Casual antibiotic use is another contributing factor. Over 80 percent of the antibiotics currently used in U.S. agriculture are for non-essential purposes—such as medicated feed that stimulates animal growth. A 50 percent increase in mastitis (udder infection) rates from injection of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) also means more, often illegal, antibiotic use that turns up as residues in both milk, meat, and our water supply, thanks to manure runoff from factory farms. The result has been an alarming upshot in strains of resistant bacteria now wreaking havoc in our nation’s hospital wards. Irradiation exposure will only accelerates the evolution of more “super germs,” which is why some of the staunchest opponents of irradiated foods (and subtherapeutic antibiotics) are biologists, veterinarians, physicians, and nurses.
While technically illegal in the wake of the Mad Cow outbreak in Europe, many U.S. agribusiness operators continue to feed livestock the remains of other animals, often in the form of processed blood/bone meal, other rendered roadkill and livestock byproducts, as well as milk protein concentrate (MPC), slipped into feed supplements. This practice is especially tempting for factory dairy farm operators, who need higher protein and calcium in their feeding regimen to compensate for the unnatural milk volumes cranked out of cows on rBGH. In some cases, entrails of slaughtered animals are served back to others “stuck in the queue” at slaughterhouses. Such widespread “cannibalism” easily spreads prions, viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens between animals and across species. The chronic wasting disease (CWD) now infecting Midwestern deer, and potentially Midwestern hunters, is just the tip of the iceberg. Advanced meat recovery and other techniques to extract every last ounce of flesh from animal carcasses exacerbates this dangerous trend since it means more bone marrow, nerves, cartilage, ligaments, and spinal tissue in low-grade meat destined for fast food pizza, hamburger, and taco outlets.
Meat packing mergers and accelerated assembly lines are two other clear factors behind the widespread contamination that irradiation is meant to “solve.” One infected steer tossed into a corporate hamburger grinder and then redistributed to grocery and restaurant chains nationwide can easily kill scores of people in half a dozen states. The deregulation and privatization of meat inspection under the Clinton/Bush administrations has only made this grim scenario worse. A recent expose by Public Citizen revealed that the USDA’s new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) meat sanitation program was a food safety joke. For instance, the Cargil/Excel meatpacking plant, responsible for an E. coli outbreak in Wisconsin that killed one child and sickened 500 others, passed its first two HACCP checks with flying colors, but then during the 15-month “holiday” between mandated inspections received a whopping 26 citations for fecal contamination with no regulatory action. A more recent memo from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) leaked to the press ( New York Time s) redefined “contamination” to mean “verifiable feces (with) a fibrous nature” and went on to warn inspectors that they would be held personally responsible for lost company profits stemming from “unjustifiable” assembly line halts.
Food irradiation is a short-term “band aid” for a much more systemic factory farm induced corporate food system malaise. Consumers should not buy into the false sense of security offered by this “high tech” quick fix nor should taxpayers tolerate subsidizing it—whether through the Pentagon’s Star Wars program or the USDA’s school lunch program. Grassroots efforts are now underway to mandate genuine truth in labeling, build a consumer boycott against all irradiated products, pressure school boards and other elected officials to ban irradiated foodstuffs from public institutions, and otherwise return this misguided technology to the laboratory dustbin where it belongs. As Michael Hart, a British farmer who visited Wisconsin on a speaking tour last summer wryly noted, “I don’t want to eat shit—raw, cooked, or irradiated.”
E. Peck is a graduate student at UW-Madison, grew up on a 260-acre
farm in central Minnesota, and is currently executive director of
Family Farm Defenders.
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