May 7, 2003

Consumer Organization Barred from Touring Food Irradiation Facility With Other Conference Attendees

 

CHICAGO – Organizers of an international conference on food irradiation barred a Public Citizen staff member from touring an irradiation facility today, despite the fact that the tour was a conference activity. A staff member of the national consumer advocacy group has participated in other parts of the conference, which was organized by Michigan State University.

The tour of SureBeam Corp.’s irradiation facility in the Chicago suburb of Glendale Heights was included on the official agenda of the First World Congress on Food Irradiation. Promotional materials for the conference specifically included consumer groups in "Who Should Attend." But when a Public Citizen staff member signed up for the event, he was told he could not attend. Organizers told him this was due to "requests for increased security and corporate confidentiality" by SureBeam.

"Suggesting that we are security threat is ridiculous and insulting," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "If this facility cannot withstand public scrutiny, what are they hiding? This smacks of discrimination."

In their promotional materials, SureBeam often tells consumers that their process is no more involved than a microwave they would use in their home. "If the process is as harmless as they say, why can’t we go see it?" Hauter said.

Irradiation uses ionizing radiation that alters the molecular structure of food in an attempt to kill pathogens and insects. The process can destroy nutrients, change the taste, smell and appearance of food, and produce new chemical compounds, some of which have been found to promote cancer development and cause genetic and cellular damage in rats and human cells.

SureBeam, a company spun off from a San Diego-based defense contractor, has struggled to promote its technology to consumers and government regulators and has lost $113 million since 1997. SureBeam has been an outspoken advocate for labeling irradiated foods as "pasteurized," although that is a distinctly different process that uses rapid heating and cooling to partially sterilize liquid products, namely milk. The company also has tried to mislead consumers by comparing irradiation to microwaving.

In 2001, SureBeam began building its Glendale Heights irradiation facility without receiving necessary air permits from the state. The company applied for a permit to release ozone into the air only after the state agency ordered it to do so, under pressure from a local citizens group.

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