The Irradiation of Eggs: The Details


First, federal officials allowed the flour in your toast to be "treated" with radiation. Then they said the potatoes in your homefries could be irradiated. Next they said it was OK to irradiate your bacon. Then they legalized the irradiation of the apples and cantaloupe in your fruit salad, and the onions and peppers in your Western omelet.

On Friday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration legalized the irradiation of eggs.

So much for the all-American breakfast.

The announcement marks the FDA s sixth major decision since 1985 to allow portions of the American food supply to be exposed to high levels of radiation -- the equivalent of tens of millions of chest x-rays for the stated purpose of killing harmful microorganisms and extending the shelf life of food. As in many of their previous rulings, FDA officials have -- in the pages of official U.S. government documents -- misrepresented scientific research to support their opinion that irradiated food is safe to eat.

FDA officials, international health planners and food industry executives are embracing the use of radiation "treatments" as a way to reduce food-borne disease, despite 50 years of research indicating that irradiated food may not be safe for human consumption.

Among many unseemly side-effects, irradiation destroys vitamins, nutrients and essential fatty acids in food; leads to the formation of free radicals, which set off chain reactions that tear apart cell membranes and make the body more susceptible to cancer and diabetes; can spawn mutant forms of E. coli, Salmonella and other harmful bacteria, making them more difficult to kill; can lead to the formation of carcinogens and other toxic chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, octane, butane and methyl propane; can corrupt the flavor and texture of foods, leading to meat that smells like a wet dog and onions that turn brown; kills beneficial microorganisms, such as the yeasts and molds that help keep botulism at bay; and does nothing to remove the feces, urine, pus, vomit and tumors often left on beef, chicken, and lamb due to filthy and inhumane slaughterhouse conditions.

Moreover, experiments conducted over the past half-century at universities and research institutions throughout the world have revealed that lab animals fed irradiated food have suffered premature death, cancer, reproductive and immune problems, liver and kidney dysfunction, low birth weight, nutritional muscular dystrophy and chromosomal damage, among many serious health problems.

FDA officials not only have ignored these problems, they have relied on questionable research that has obscured the well-documented hazards of exposing food to radiation.

The FDA, for instance, cited only 7 of more than 400 scientific studies to determine that irradiated food is safe to eat. In all seven of these studies, researchers fudged their results by using doses of radiation at or far below levels ultimately approved by the FDA, added nutrients to the diets of lab animals to offset the harmful effects of irradiation -- and, in at least two studies -- both. Four of the seven studies have never been published in peer-reviewed journals. And three of the studies have never been translated into English.

Eggs are just as vulnerable to radiation as other classes of food, if not more so. Research has shown that:

Irradiated eggs are deficient in vitamin A and niacin. FDA officials admit that eggs lose 24 percent of their vitamin A when exposed to just one-third the level of radiation the agency approved today.

Irradiation severely disrupts the interaction between albumin (a protein found in egg whites that is essential for proper blood circulation, especially in infants) and trypsin (a pancreatic enzyme that plays a key role in healing, digestion and cancer prevention).

The high fat content of eggs makes them highly susceptible to lipid peroxidation, a dangerous type of chemical reaction that spawns free radicals, can initiate chain reactions in the body, destroy cell membranes, and hamper the body s ability to prevent cancer, diabetes, heart disease and muscular degeneration.

Irradiated eggs are aesthetically displeasing. Their yolks are more watery, and have less color and brightness than normal eggs. They are also more difficult to cook with, requiring more time to whip and yielding angel-food cakes with half the volume.

Radiation can cause Salmonella and other bacteria to mutate -- sometimes into hardier strains. A 1990 study co-authored by veteran U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher Donald Thayer concluded that Salmonella becomes more resistant when exposed to radiation. In their formal Federal Register filing published today, however, FDA officials used the Thayer study to support the proposal. In doing so, FDA officials misrepresented Thayer s findings. The FDA stated the six strains of Salmonella that Thayer studied were equally susceptible to radiation, when Thayer actually discovered that one strain was "significantly" more resistant than the other five.

Irradiation serves to mask the wretched conditions in which chickens are raised in today s factory farms. Chickens are debeaked and crammed by the tens of thousands into huge poultry houses, where they wallow in their own feces and the filth from other chickens, breath air so thick with ammonia and dust that workers are advised to wear respirators, and are often reduced to cannibalism and eating "litter," a putrid mixture of excrement, rotten food, and bodies of dead chickens, rats and mice.

The request to irradiate eggs was filed by Edward Josephson, a 40-year veteran of the irradiation movement. Josephson, now 84, oversaw the U.S. Army s food irradiation lab in Natick, Massachusetts, for more than 10 years during the 1960s and 1970s. It was during Josephson s watch that, in 1968, the FDA rescinded the Army s permission to serve irradiated bacon to military personnel after it was revealed that lab animals fed irradiated food suffered premature death, a rare form of cancer, tumors, reproductive problems and low weight gain. A high-ranking FDA officials wrote at the time -- in an article that few eyes have seen since -- that "it is clearly apparent that the FDA cannot conclude that the irradiation of bacon has shown to be a safe process."

Also under Josephson s watch, the Army hired a private outfit whose research into food irradiation was so sloppy that, according to an investigation by the U.S. General Accounting Office, "the data from these studies has been determined as being useless." The snafu cost taxpayers $4 million. (Three executives of the company were convicted on federal charges for their fraudulent work on a different project.)

Beyond his research work, Josephson has frequently been quoted in magazines and journals in support of irradiation and in opposition to policies that could limit its advancement. He once said, for instance, that labeling irradiated food as such "would tend to have an unfavorable psychological effect" on consumers.

Josephson s research on egg irradiation has been partially underwritten by MDS Nordion, an Ontario, Canada-based company that owns an irradiation facility in rural southwest Florida. MDS Nordion is a business partner of Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd., which has been responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology to Argentina (which has nuclear ties with Iran), China (which has been accused of smuggling nuclear secrets to Iran, Iraq and Pakistan), and India and Pakistan (both of which eventually developed nuclear weapons).

In a Friday press release, MDS Nordion executives said they were "delighted" by the FDA's ruling. In cheering the decision, however, MDS Nordion mistakenly took partial credit for it, calling itself a "co-petitioner" with Josephson. According to the FDA, MDS Nordion is not named in the egg irradiation application.