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Cancer and Genetic Damage Risks Linked to Chemicals in Irradiated Ground Beef, Other Foods

Feb. 26, 2003

Cancer and Genetic Damage Risks Linked to Chemicals in Irradiated Ground Beef, Other Foods

Groups Urge U.S. Food and Drug Administration to Issue Moratorium;
Cite Evidence that Irradiated Foods Could Threaten Public Health

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chemical byproducts found in irradiated ground beef and many other foods “treated” with radiation may increase the risks of colon cancer and DNA damage in people who eat these foods, according to new studies conducted in Europe.

Based on this evidence, the consumer groups Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety today filed formal comments urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to deny five pending requests to irradiate additional food types, including “ready-to-eat” foods – such as packaged deli meats, frozen meals and snack foods – which comprise more than a third of the typical American’s diet. The FDA is also considering legalizing irradiation for shellfish and several other food classes.

In addition, the groups urged the FDA to reconsider its past approvals of irradiation for beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fruits, vegetables, spices and other foods. This series of approvals began in 1983.

The new European studies come at a time when irradiated foods, primarily ground beef, are being made available to millions of Americans. Schoolchildren throughout the country soon could be eating irradiated ground beef; hundreds of grocery stores and restaurants, including several large chains, have begun marketing irradiated meat; and record-sized recalls have led several huge meat producers – including giants Excel and IBP – to irradiate some of their products.

“This is a moment of truth. The FDA can either preserve or gamble with the health of the American people. The choice is theirs,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The wrong choice could have serious, unintended consequences – particularly for children and other vulnerable populations. Given the stakes, this new evidence is impossible to ignore.”

The new studies call into question the long-held position of the FDA and the food industry that irradiated foods are generally safe for human consumption. But the studies confirm research published in 1998 and 2001 showing that concentrations of chemicals called 2-alkylcyclobutanones (or 2-ACBs) – which are found only in irradiated foods – caused DNA damage in human cells.

Among the new findings, 2-ACBs were shown to promote tumor development in rat colons. Also, scientists discovered that they could not adequately account for most of a dose of 2-ACBs fed to rats. While very small amounts of 2-ACBs were detected in the fat of rats, most of the chemicals could not be recovered, implying that they are either stored in other parts of the body or transformed into other compounds.

The 2-ACBs are formed when foods that contain fat are irradiated, such as beef, chicken, eggs and certain fruits – all of which can legally be irradiated and sold to consumers.

Funded by the European Union (EU), the three-year project was conducted by a team of French and German scientists from several institutions, including Germany’s Federal Research Center for Nutrition and the Louis Pasteur University in France. The 200-page body of research, released in December, consists of five primary toxicity studies and several secondary studies. Published in German and French, the studies were translated into English by Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety.

The authors of the studies have warned:

“Caution should be exercised before any risk to consumers by exposure to these compounds is denied… Further research is required to precisely determine exposure to these substances, the precise dose-response relationship, and in particular the kinetics and metabolism of 2-ACBs in the living organism. All of this research is necessary to gain insight into the mechanisms of the toxic effects.”

The findings contributed to the recent decision by the European Parliament to reject a proposal to expand the types of food that could be irradiated in the 15-nation EU. Irradiation is permitted only for spices, herbs and other seasonings, which are consumed in very small quantities and contain virtually no fat.

“If any other food additive had as much science about health risks stacked up against it, the claim that it is safe would be laughed at,” said Peter Jenkins, policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety. “I trust the FDA will respect the ‘caution’ signs now very apparent in the scientific record and make sure irradiated food is safe before it is fed to the American public.”

Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety also presented to the FDA a signed opinion of William Au, Ph.D., an internationally recognized toxicology expert at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Based on a review of the European studies and other research, Au warns that “consumption of irradiated food among individuals who have risk factors for colon cancer will cause increased risk for the disease,” and that “consumption of large amounts of irradiated foods can increase health risks in the population.”

The groups also have submitted evidence of many and varied health problems in animals fed irradiated foods, including premature death, mutations and other genetic abnormalities, fetal death and other reproductive problems, immune system disorders, organ damage, stunted growth and nutritional deficiencies.

The groups are calling on the FDA to take several steps: refrain from legalizing irradiation for any additional foods until comprehensive, published, peer-reviewed research is conducted on 2-ACBs and other toxicity risks; conduct a comprehensive analysis of the 2-ACB levels and potential risks associated with all foods the agency has approved for irradiation and has under consideration; and convene public meetings to thoroughly explore the health effects of this controversial food sterilization technology.

Click here to view the groups’ filing to the FDA.