Is Irradiated Food Safe?

While food irradiation advocates say that 40 years of research shows the process to be safe, evidence for this assertion is missing. Irradiation -- zapping food with radiation equivalent to 10 million to 70 million chest X-rays -- changes the molecular structure of food. Irradiation creates new and potentially dangerous compounds, called radiolytic products, by smashing apart the chemical bonds in food and sending electrons flying. Although these unique radiolytic products which have yet to be enumerated and identified as well as known toxins such as formaldehyde and benzene have the potential to cause cancer, there have been no studies conducted on the long-term health effects of eating irradiated food. In fact, almost all research on toxicity was done before 1980 and did not use modern toxicological methods of research.

Nutrients and vitamins (A, thiamin, B complex, C and E) take a beating under the onslaught of irradiation. Irradiation destroys up to 95 percent of vitamin A in chicken, 86 percent of vitamin B in oats, and 70 percent of vitamin C in fruit juices, research shows. Essential amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids can be depleted as well. And because irradiation increases shelf life, irradiated food likely will sit in stores longer, losing even more nutritional content.


How Did Irradiation Become Legal?

Hundreds of formal studies have been conducted over the past 40 years, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rejected almost all of them, saying they were poorly done. Many found that irradiation led to serious health problems in laboratory animals, including shorter life spans, low birth weight, kidney damage, immune and reproductive problems, chromosomal abnormalities and tumors.

Without exception, FDA officials have chosen to ignore any evidence that suggests irradiation may be dangerous. This has been especially true since 1980, when former U.S. Rep. Margaret Heckler, (R-Mass.), a long-time irradiation booster, became Secretary of Health and Human Services, the agency that oversees the FDA. For 16 years, Heckler represented the district in Massachusetts where the Army conducted its original irradiation research.

Until 1980, the FDA had been fairly cautious about irradiation, even though there was a tremendous amount of pressure from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the fledgling irradiation industry to move ahead with legalizing the process. The FDA had already had a bad experience in the 1960s when it rescinded its legalization of irradiated canned bacon because of questions about the validity of the studies used to prove the safety of the process.

Before 1980, the FDA maintained that approval of irradiation would be based on animal testing -- the accepted method of establishing the safety of particular food additives (irradiation is classified as an additive). However, the FDA discovered that a large number of the studies that had initially shown irradiation to be safe were conducted by Industrial BioTest, Ltd., a company whose work on irradiation was deemed deficient by government officials. (Three company directors were later convicted for falsifying test data on a different matter.)

As a result, the FDA changed the rationale on which it based its conclusion that irradiation is safe. Rather than using animal testing, it used a theoretical calculation of risk based on the number of potentially harmful new chemicals to which a consumer might be exposed from irradiated food. This new reasoning came from the Bureau of Foods Irradiated Food Committee, which the FDA formed in early 1980 and which issued a final report in July 1980 concluding based on theory, rather than research that irradiation was safe.

In 1981, the FDA formed a second committee, the Bureau of Foods Irradiated Foods Task Group, which reviewed all available toxicological data concerning irradiated foods. Of 441 studies reviewed by the Task Group, 32 were found to indicate adverse results, while 37 "appeared" to support safety of irradiation. The rest were deemed to be deficient. Upon detailed analysis, the Task Group accepted only five studies that "appeared" to support safety. Committee Chairman Marcia van Gemert cautioned in 1982 that "studies of sufficiently high quality to support the safety of irradiated foods treated at high irradiation doses, which constitute major contributions to the daily diet, for long-term use are & not available."

Since that time, things have been quiet on the food irradiation research front, and no studies have been done on the long-term health effects of consuming irradiated food.

Van Gemert s warning is as timely as ever. At this writing, the FDA is considering a proposal from the powerful National Food Processors Association to irradiate ready-to-eat food such as TV dinners and luncheon meat. Others are concerned as well. For 10 years, Donald Louria, chair of preventive medicine and community health at the New Jersey University of Medicine, has been raising red flags about the dangers of food irradiation.

He remains quite worried: "Until the industry is willing to agree to nutritional studies on each type of irradiated food and to put the results on the label, and until there is a proper study of the potential chromosomal damage of irradiation, we should not be irradiating our foods."?