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Meat Irradiation Becomes Legal Tuesday

Feb. 21, 2000

Meat Irradiation Becomes Legal Tuesday

Irradiation of Meat Unwise Given Inadequate Research, Poor Labeling Laws

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The federal government’s decision to legalize the irradiation of raw meat and meat products is irresponsible because of the glaring lack of research regarding the long-term health effects of irradiated food on humans, a Public Citizen food irradiation expert said today.

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, according to Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project. Other research has shown that food irradiation diminishes the nutritional value of food by depleting its vitamins, she said.

Beginning Tuesday, Feb. 22, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will permit 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. (Irradiated meat sold in supermarkets will be labeled as such.)

“The legalization of irradiation of our food supply is incredibly irresponsible given the clearly inadequate testing of the effects on consumers’ health and nutrition,” Hauter said. “To make matters worse, weak and incomplete labeling rules effectively remove the public’s right to know what they are eating.”

The body of research on irradiated food is sketchy at best and has yielded conflicting results as to the safety of irradiated food, Hauter said. 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.

Irradiation is classified as an additive and requires users to petition the FDA for permission to irradiate specific foods. The U.S. Army conducted early research on food irradiation, resulting in the legalization in 1963 of irradiated canned bacon. It was pulled from the market, however, when the FDA discovered that the research was flawed and that significant adverse effects were produced in animals fed irradiated food.

In the 1980s, the government lost six years’ worth of studies when its contractor, Bio-Test Ltd. (IBT), was found to have conducted fraudulent research. Despite the criminal conviction of three of Bio-Test’s directors, and despite the fact that the company’s work was characterized by “missing records, unallowable departures from testing protocol” and “poor work quality,” the work is still cited by many as showing that food irradiation is safe.

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.

When the FDA ultimately deemed food irradiation safe, it pointed to five animal studies. But there were problems with each of them, Hauter said. In one, four litters of rats fed irradiated wheat were stillborn, while just one litter was stillborn in rats not being fed the irradiated food. Another ignored defects found in dogs fed irradiated food. In a third, rats fed irradiated milk powder lost weight and experienced miscarriages, and in the remaining two, the sample sizes were too small to be statistically significant.

A 1997 CBS poll showed that 77 percent of Americans don’t want to eat irradiated food. But food irradiation is becoming more widespread in part because of efforts by the food and nuclear industries to sway administration officials and lawmakers, said Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen’s president. For instance, in the 1995-1996 election cycle, food industry PACs spent $22.6 million on campaign contributions, and in the 1997-1998 cycle, they spent $19.8 million.

“Despite a strong show of the public’s will, the money and influence wielded in Congress and the regulatory agencies by the nuclear and food industries is undermining democracy and the notion that government should serve people, rather than corporate interests,” Claybrook said.