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Consumer Groups to USDA: Don’t Feed Irradiated Food to School Children

Dec. 18, 2002

Consumer Groups to USDA: Don’t Feed Irradiated Food to School Children

Two Groups File Comments Citing Multiple Reasons for Rejecting Technology in National School Lunch Program

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Children who participate in the National School Lunch Program should not be fed irradiated food because there are no long-term health studies on children who eat such food, two public interest organizations said today. Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety submitted 11 pages of comments in response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) call last month for comments on whether irradiated food should be permitted to feed the 25.4 million children who sign up for the federal program each year.

The USDA’s call for comment comes in response to a little-known rider tucked into the massive 2002 Farm bill. That provision requires the USDA to reconsider its long-existing prohibition on irradiated foods in federal food subsidy programs. The initial call for comments occurred at the onset of the holiday season, prior to Thanksgiving, in a hurried and unpublicized process. Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety object to the brevity and timing of the feedback period during the busy month of December, when most people’s attention is focused elsewhere.

“A decision to feed school children irradiated food would mean this agency is willing to put our children’s health at risk to help cover up the meat industry’s sanitary failures,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The USDA must ensure the safety of those it feeds, not bow to the interests of the meat and irradiation industries.”

Recent market research conducted by the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA shows that the public overwhelmingly wants irradiated food to be clearly labeled as “irradiated” and that consumers view attempts to eliminate that labeling as “sneaky” and “deceptive.” However, if irradiated food is permitted in school lunches, it will not be labeled in the way that irradiated retail food must be, making it impossible for parents to know what school cafeterias are feeding their children.

Research indicates that irradiation depletes several vitamins and nutrients. Additionally, irradiated foods contain chemical byproducts of the process. One class of these byproducts, called alkylcyclobutanones, is unique to irradiated food. These byproducts recently were found by a respected European research consortium to promote tumor formation in rats and to cause genetic and cellular damage in human and rat cells. As a result, recent attempts to liberalize the use of irradiation in Europe have suffered defeats in the European Union and before the Codex Alimentarius, the global food standard-setting body.

“If USDA forces irradiated food into the federal school meal program, it will be running a massive – and wholly unethical – toxicity experiment on the most vulnerable children in America,” said Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. “We’ve looked long and hard at the science, and the bottom line is that we urge parents and administrators to demand that USDA stop this threat now.”

In the comments, the groups also said that:

  • The Nov. 22 press release issued by the USDA press office did not state a deadline for submitting comments. It was only after the groups contacted the USDA press office that they learned the comment period would expire on Dec. 22, a Sunday in the busy holiday season. In sum, the 30-day comment period was inadequately declared and is too short given the massive public impacts.
  • An expert has outlined a scientific case against feeding irradiated foods to vulnerable school children. Details were in an affidavit the groups submitted from William W. Au, Ph.D., an internationally recognized toxicology expert. Au is a professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Community Health at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston.
  • Dropping the long-existing ban on irradiation in school lunch contracts will turn these programs into the largest distributor of irradiated food. Yet the only controlled study of children, who were fed irradiated wheat, found that the diet had mutagenic effects. No studies on children have been done since that 1975 research, primarily for ethical reasons because of the dangers. The consumer groups say it is shocking that USDA would consider forcing the technology on children based on the science.
  • Irradiation is no cure-all for food safety problems. There is much that should be done to improve the food served to the nation’s schoolchildren, most importantly strengthening federal inspection and enforcement to ensure that processed food is safe and wholesome. In particular, poor sanitation and improper slaughtering and processing practices in meat and poultry plants must be fixed, otherwise all consumers will remain at risk.

The groups concluded that the USDA has the discretion to decide how to implement the Farm bill provision and that the right choice is to continue the existing ban on irradiated foods in all of the various USDA nutrition programs.

Hundreds of comments have since been submitted in opposition to irradiated food, mostly from concerned parents.

To read the groups’ comments, please click here.