March 13, 2000
Consumers Should Steer Clear of Wal-Mart Meat
Consumer Groups Urge Shoppers to Avoid Irradiated Meat
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Consumers should not buy packaged meat from Wal-Mart once the store begins to test-market irradiated meat because food irradiation has not been proven safe and because it merely masks contamination, Public Citizen and the Government Accountability Project said Monday.
At a minimum, Wal-Mart should warn consumers of the dangers of irradiated meat with labels that state that irradiation does not kill all bacteria, that it destroys important vitamins and enzymes, and that it leads to the formation of potentially carcinogenic chemicals in food. Wal-Mart reportedly will be selling the meat at premium prices.
“Irradiation translates into big profits for Wal-Mart, but something entirely different for consumers,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project. “Corporate agribusiness has convinced the government to abandon its protective role, allowing companies like Wal-Mart to use food irradiation to extend the shelf life of meat beyond what is appropriate and mask the unhygienic conditions in which animals are raised, slaughtered and processed.”
At the same time as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is pushing irradiation, it is also moving toward a new regulatory regime that will reduce government’s role and make consumers more dependent on industry for food safety, said Felicia Nestor, food safety project director of the Government Accountability Project.
Wal-Mart is getting poultry from a slaughterhouse that is engaged in the USDA’s new program of company self-inspection. Under this program, as many as 140 birds per minute are processed, rather than the industry standard of 90 birds per minute under government inspection.
“Wal-Mart customers should know that Wal-Mart is selling questionable poultry products from a highly suspect scheme to limit government regulatory oversight,” Nestor said. “Under this experimental program, diseased and unwholesome chickens are being released to unsuspecting consumers.”
The government has declared food irradiation to be safe by using mathematical calculations supported by just five animal studies conducted primarily in the 1960s and 1970s that were of questionable quality, Hauter said.
The body of research on irradiated food is sketchy at best and has yielded conflicting results as to the safety of irradiated food. There are no studies on the long-term health effects of irradiated food on humans, which means it is uncertain that eating irradiated food is safe. Among the unknowns: the comprehensive effects of irradiation on the nutritional value of food, whether irradiation has different effects on frozen food as compared to fresh food, how irradiation affects irregularly shaped foods, what its effects are on helpful bacteria, and the effects of irradiation on plant workers who oversee the treatment of food.
Meanwhile, tests on short-term effects of food irradiation are contradictory and inconclusive. Some research shows that food irradiation causes the creation of new chemicals in food that could be toxic or cancer-causing. Also, research shows that irradiation destroys vitamins A, B1, K and E.
According to FDA documents, a 1982 FDA review of 413 studies found 344 to be inconclusive or inadequate to demonstrate either the safety or toxicity of irradiated foods, while 32 indicated adverse effects and 37 showed the procedure to be safe.
A 1997 CBS poll showed that 77 percent of Americans don’t want to eat irradiated food.
In February, the USDA legalized the irradiation of raw meat and meat products such as ground beef, steaks and pork chops. Under the USDA’s labeling requirements, meat served in such places as restaurants and cafeterias will not have to be labeled, so consumers will have no idea when they are eating irradiated meat. However, irradiated meat sold in stores will be labeled as such.
“Because of the dangers of irradiation, consumers should steer clear of Wal-Mart meat,” Hauter said. “There are simply too many unknowns.”