Approval of Irradiated Oysters Is a Step in the Wrong Direction

Aug. 16, 2005

Approval of Irradiated Oysters Is a Step in the Wrong Direction

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Food Program

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s decision today to permit the use of irradiation on molluscan shellfish, such as oysters, clams and mussels, is misguided.   Despite years of consumer resistance to eating irradiated food, the government continues to forge a path down which very few consumers are willing to tread.

By all any measure, irradiation has been a failure. Grocery stores rarely carry irradiated meat because it doesn’t sell. The National School Lunch Program has yet to order a single pound of irradiated ground beef despite the federal government’s 2003 approval of such purchases for the program. Several food irradiation facilities have closed their doors in the past two years due to lack of business.

The FDA is promoting irradiation despite the fact that questions about long-term health impacts of irradiation remain unanswered and despite the fact that alternatives exist. On Aug. 8, FDA Commissioner Lester Crawford, speaking to the International Congress on Meat Science and Technology, said that the risk of food-borne illnesses in shellfish can be substantially reduced by cutting the time from harvest to refrigeration, freezing, and using high pressure or mild heating. He stated that “85-90 percent of Vibrio illnesses in the Gulf Coast states could be eliminated if the product were iced within four hours or refrigerated within one hour of harvest.”   On Aug. 13, the agency conducted a public hearing in Alabama to present findings from a risk analysis for Vibrio parahaemolyticus, a bacteria found in oysters that causes food poisoning. Irradiation was one of many treatments mentioned in the study, but the study’s conclusions contained no endorsement of irradiation or evidence that it is the best mitigation technique.

Few studies have been done on the effects of irradiating shellfish. One study cited by the FDA risk analysis study as demonstrating the effectiveness of irradiation also finds that irradiation doses at very low levels produced an unpleasant yellow byproduct. The risk analysis does not discuss the safety or nutrition issues surrounding this or other byproducts, such as the class of irradiation byproducts called alkylcyclobutanones. These have been linked with tumor promotion and genetic damage and are produced when fat is irradiated. Shellfish have fat, so alkylcyclobutanones could be formed when shellfish is irradiated.

The government should ensure a procedure is safe before permitting its use. We urge the FDA to rescind this rule and deny other pending petitions that would allow more kinds of food to be irradiated.

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For more information about food irradiation, click here.