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Meat Irradiation Becomes Legal Tuesday


For Immediate Release:

Contact: Wenonah Hauter (202) 454-5150
Angela Bradbery (202) 588-7741

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 theirradiation of raw meat and meat products is irresponsible because of the glaring lack ofresearch regarding the long-term health effects of irradiated food on humans, a PublicCitizen food irradiation expert said today.

The government has declared food irradiation to be safe by using mathematicalcalculations supported by just five animal studies conducted primarily in the 1960s and1970s, that were of questionable quality, according to Wenonah Hauter, director of PublicCitizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project. Other research has shown that foodirradiation 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 theirradiation 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 andcafeterias will not have to be labeled, so consumers will have no idea when they areeating irradiated meat. (Irradiated meat sold in supermarkets will be labeled as such.)

“The legalization of irradiation of our food supply is incredibly irresponsiblegiven the clearly inadequate testing of the effects on consumers’ health andnutrition,” Hauter said. “To make matters worse, weak and incomplete labelingrules 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 conflictingresults as to the safety of irradiated food, Hauter said. There are no studies on thelong-term health effects of irradiated food on humans, which means it is uncertain thateating irradiated food is safe. Among the unknowns: the comprehensive effects ofirradiation on the nutritional value of food, whether irradiation has different effects onfrozen 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 workerswho oversee the treatment of food.

Meanwhile, tests on short-term effects of food irradiation are contradictory andinconclusive. Some research shows that food irradiation causes the creation of newchemicals in food that could be toxic or cancer-causing. Also, research shows thatirradiation destroys vitamins A, B1, K and E.

Irradiation is classified as an additive and requires users to petition the FDA forpermission to irradiate specific foods. The U.S. Army conducted early research on foodirradiation, resulting in the legalization in 1963 of irradiated canned bacon. It waspulled from the market, however, when the FDA discovered that the research was flawed andthat 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 criminalconviction of three of Bio-Test’s directors, and despite the fact that thecompany’s work was characterized by “missing records, unallowable departuresfrom testing protocol” and “poor work quality,” the work is still cited bymany as showing that food irradiation is safe.

According to FDA documents, a 1982 FDA review of 413 studies found 344 to beinconclusive or inadequate to demonstrate either the safety or toxicity of irradiatedfoods, 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 animalstudies. But there were problems with each of them, Hauter said. In one, four litters ofrats fed irradiated wheat were stillborn, while just one litter was stillborn in rats notbeing 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, andin 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 irradiatedfood. But food irradiation is becoming more widespread in part because of efforts by thefood and nuclear industries to sway administration officials and lawmakers, said JoanClaybrook, 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 1997-1998cycle, they spent $19.8 million.

“Despite a strong show of the public’s will, the money and influence wieldedin Congress and the regulatory agencies by the nuclear and food industries is underminingdemocracy and the notion that government should serve people, rather than corporateinterests,” Claybrook said.