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Approval of Irradiated Meat for National School Lunch Program Is Wrong Decision

May 29, 2003

Approval of Irradiated Meat for National School Lunch Program Is Wrong Decision

Statement by Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

Despite thousands of comments to the federal government from parents, teachers and children nationwide opposing irradiated meat in the National School Lunch Program (91 percent of those commenting were against it), the government today ignored the will of its constituents and approved the use of irradiation for the federal nutrition program. By offering schools the option of purchasing irradiated meat for school lunches, which feed 27 million children each year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) could become the largest distributor of irradiated food in the world.

Beginning in January 2004, children who participate in the federal program will become guinea pigs in a government experiment that has neglected parental concerns and disregarded numerous studies that show the potentially harmful health effects of eating irradiated food. This horrendous decision benefits the meat industry at the expense of society’s most vulnerable citizens – our children. Approving irradiated meat for school cafeterias nationwide means the USDA is willing to put our children’s health at risk to help cover up the meat industry’s sanitation failures. Prioritizing industry’s influence over the safety of those it feeds is not just a bad decision – it is an error in moral judgment.

But prior to any official decision, the USDA funded a pilot “education” program in Minnesota intended to increase public acceptance of irradiated foods in school lunch programs. Conducted by the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning (CFL), this project developed pro-irradiation materials that will serve as a model for other school districts across the country. Program documents are quite clear about the intent to promote irradiated food.

CFL’s grant proposal states that “a successful outcome of the educational campaign will be the acceptance and introduction of irradiated ground beef by select school districts.” In fact, several USDA officials who played critical roles in the development of the program have ties to the SureBeam Corporation, an irradiation company based in San Diego, Calif. One of the three school systems participating in this pilot program recently withdrew, citing its reluctance to be at the center of this controversy.

Because federal law does not require labeling of irradiated food served in schools, restaurants, hospitals and similar venues, irradiated meat served in school cafeterias need not be labeled. This makes it impossible for parents to know what school cafeterias are feeding their children and is a blatant violation of parents’ right to know.

More importantly, the children most likely to eat food purchased through the school lunch program are from lower-income families who cannot afford to send their children to school with homemade lunches. These children must depend on food provided by government nutrition programs. If irradiated meat ends up on their lunch trays at schools, they don’t have the option of refusing it.

Irradiation is not an acceptable antidote for food safety problems. From strengthening government meat inspection to addressing the appalling disrepair in many school cafeterias, there is much that should be done to improve the safety of food served to our nation’s children at school. But using the purchasing power of the federal government to bail out a struggling industry and serving this questionable product to children have no place in a sensible food safety plan.

To read Public Citizen’s comments to the USDA on irradiated food school lunch program, click here. To read a fact sheet on irradiation, click here.