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D.C. School Board Bans Irradiated Food from School Lunch Program

Public Citizen

Youth Education Alliance

May 20, 2004  

D.C.  School Board Bans Irradiated Food from School Lunch Program

Students and Consumer Groups Praise Decision

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – School officials’ decision on Wednesday night to ban irradiated food from its school lunches is a welcome move that will help safeguard students from the unknown effects of consuming irradiated food, according to Public Citizen and the Youth Education Alliance.

In an 8-1 vote, the District of Columbia Board of Education followed a new trend nationwide by passing a resolution that forbids the 167-school system from purchasing irradiated food for any of its meal programs for five years.   Although the school system doesn’t currently serve irradiated food, it can; the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year approved the use of irradiated ground beef in the National School Lunch Program. The program provides free or reduced-price school lunches to 27 million children annually; 60 percent of the D.C. schools system’s 65,000-plus students qualify for the federally subsidized meal program.

    Banning irradiated food from school cafeterias is one way to safeguard students who would otherwise have no way to protect themselves from eating meat that has been treated with the controversial irradiation technology.   Federal law states that while irradiated meat must be labeled in grocery stores, it does not have to be labeled when served in school cafeterias, restaurants or hospitals.

The school board’s move came after students and Public Citizen urged the board to ban irradiated food. The students also called on the board to improve the quality, safety and wholesomeness of food served in D.C. schools.

    A recent WJLA (Channel 7) report revealed that 143 of 155 District schools needed “immediate action” to clean up their cafeterias.   Contributing to the filthy state of the cafeterias were rodent feces, spiders and dead insects, along with insulation materials that had fallen into the food preparation area because of aging building conditions.  Further, improper temperatures used during processing and storage had caused food to spoil, the news program found.     Irradiation would not help prevent food contamination for any of these problems.  It also cannot prevent cross-contamination once packages are opened and cannot kill the abnormal protein that causes mad cow disease.

 “Instead of spending more money on irradiated meat – which will not solve the most common contamination problems in D.C.’s cafeterias – we can now focus on bringing fresher and healthier ingredients to improve students’ lunches,” said Monique Mikhail, organizer for Public Citizen’s Safe Lunch Campaign.  “We applaud the D.C. School Board for protecting students from an unnecessary and potentially harmful food product.”

  Irradiation exposes food to a dose of ionizing radiation to kill bacteria; however, research has shown that it also produces chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens.   Recent research has shown that one class of these chemicals, cyclobutanones, promotes cancer development as well as causes genetic damage to human cells. The USDA decision to approve irradiated meat for the school lunch program was controversial because the federal agency sided with industry over parental concerns.   Of the thousands of comments the government has received, 93 percent have been in opposition to the proposal to include irradiated meat in children’s lunches. To date, no school district has purchased irradiated meat through the USDA for the 2004-2005 school year.

“We’re happy that the school board banned irradiated meat because we didn’t want students to be worried about what was on their lunch trays,” said Mayonna Bangura, youth organizer for the Youth Education Alliance and a 10th grade student at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School.  “It’s a first step in the right direction towards healthy, safe and better-tasting lunches.”