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Feb. 21, 2000
Meat Irradiation Becomes Legal Tuesday
Irradiation of Meat Unwise Given Inadequate Research,
Poor Labeling Laws
WASHINGTON, D.C. - The federal government's decision to legalize the
irradiation of raw meat and meat products is irresponsible because of the
glaring lack of research regarding the long-term health effects of
irradiated food on humans, a Public Citizen food irradiation expert said
The government has declared food irradiation to be safe by using
mathematical calculations supported by just five animal studies conducted
primarily in the 1960s and 1970s that were of questionable quality,
according to Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass
Energy Project. Other research has shown that food irradiation diminishes
the nutritional value of food by depleting its vitamins, she said.
Beginning Tuesday, Feb. 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will
permit the irradiation of raw meat and meat products such as ground beef,
steaks and pork chops. Under the USDA's labeling requirements, meat served
in such places as restaurants and cafeterias will not have to be labeled,
so consumers will have no idea when they are eating irradiated meat.
(Irradiated meat sold in supermarkets will be labeled as such.)
"The legalization of irradiation of our food supply is incredibly
irresponsible given the clearly inadequate testing of the effects on
consumers' health and nutrition," Hauter said. "To make matters worse, weak
and incomplete labeling rules effectively remove the public's right to know
what they are eating."
The body of research on irradiated food is sketchy at best and has yielded
conflicting results as to the safety of irradiated food, Hauter said. There
are no studies on the long-term health effects of irradiated food on
humans, which means it is uncertain that eating irradiated food is safe.
Among the unknowns: the comprehensive effects of irradiation on the
nutritional value of food, whether irradiation has different effects on
frozen food as compared to fresh food, how irradiation affects irregularly
shaped foods, what its effects are on helpful bacteria, and the effects of
irradiation on plant workers who oversee the treatment of food.
Meanwhile, tests on short-term effects of food irradiation are
contradictory and inconclusive. Some research shows that food irradiation
causes the creation of new chemicals in food that could be toxic or
cancer-causing. Also, research shows that irradiation destroys vitamins A,
B1, K and E.
Irradiation is classified as an additive and requires users to
petition the FDA for permission to irradiate specific foods. The U.S. Army
conducted early research on food irradiation, resulting in the legalization
in 1963 of irradiated canned bacon. It was pulled from the market, however,
when the FDA discovered that the research was flawed and that significant
adverse effects were produced in animals fed irradiated food.
In the 1980s, the government lost six years' worth of studies when
its contractor, Bio-Test Ltd. (IBT), was found to have conducted fraudulent
research. Despite the criminal conviction of three of Bio-Test's directors,
and despite the fact that the company's work was characterized by "missing
records, unallowable departures from testing protocol" and "poor work
quality," the work is still cited by many as showing that food irradiation
According to FDA documents, a 1982 FDA review of 413 studies found
344 to be inconclusive or inadequate to demonstrate either the safety or
toxicity of irradiated foods, while 32 indicated adverse effects and 37
showed the procedure to be safe.
When the FDA ultimately deemed food irradiation safe, it pointed to
five animal studies. But there were problems with each of them, Hauter
said. In one, four litters of rats fed irradiated wheat were stillborn,
while just one litter was stillborn in rats not being fed the irradiated
food. Another ignored defects found in dogs fed irradiated food. In a
third, rats fed irradiated milk powder lost weight and experienced
miscarriages, and in the remaining two, the sample sizes were too small to
be statistically significant.
A 1997 CBS poll showed that 77 percent of Americans don't want to
eat irradiated food. But food irradiation is becoming more widespread in
part because of efforts by the food and nuclear industries to sway
administration officials and lawmakers, said Joan Claybrook, Public
Citizen's president. For instance, in the 1995-1996 election cycle, food
industry PACs spent $22.6 million on campaign contributions, and in the
1997-1998 cycle, they spent $19.8 million.
"Despite a strong show of the public's will, the money and
influence wielded in Congress and the regulatory agencies by the nuclear
and food industries is undermining democracy and the notion that government
should serve people, rather than corporate interests," Claybrook said.
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