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New England Journal of Medicine Article on Food Irradiation Ignores Scientific Uncertainty

April 28, 2004

New England Journal of Medicine Article on Food Irradiation Ignores Scientific Uncertainty

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director, Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

In the April 29 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, Michael Osterholm recommends that doctors and health professionals advocate food irradiation, including the use of irradiated ground beef in school lunch programs. This controversial food technology uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria and extend shelf life.

Osterholm brushes aside the continuing controversy over the impact of eating irradiated food on human health or the need for a precautionary approach when considering irradiated food for mass distribution. Due to the lack of conclusive evidence that irradiated food can be consumed without long-term detrimental health effects, most of the public is wary of embracing irradiation.

Osterholm points to a July 2002 statement on food irradiation by the European Commission’s food advisory body, the Scientific Committee on Food (SCF), as a reason to support the technology globally. Yet the continuing scientific uncertainty about irradiated foods was one factor considered by the European Parliament in December 2002 when it decided not to expand the list of foods approved for irradiation in the European Union. Dr. Francis Raul, director of a study published in 2002 on a class of chemicals called alkylcyclobutanones, which are found only in irradiated foods, noted in The New York Times last year that “it is perhaps too early to start irradiating beef to give to children.” Alkylcyclobutanones have been linked to the promotion of tumor formation in rats and genetic and cellular damage in human and rat cells.

Osterholm’s glowing endorsement of irradiation should not be considered without a note about his sources of funding. Two of the three major irradiation companies, SureBeam and Ion Beam Applications, have financially supported his research center. And Donald Thayer, author of an accompanying pro-irradiation column, has financial ties to CFC Logistics, which runs an irradiation facility in Pennsylvania, and Zero Mountain, which once planned to build an irradiation facility.

Irradiated food has not made major inroads in the market during the 50 years since it debuted in the United States. Grocery stores across the country have pulled the product from their shelves due to weak sales, and school districts such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have banned it from their cafeterias. This is testimony to a commonsense approach by consumers who do not believe that irradiated food has been proved safe or that they should have to pay more for food treated by a process that is used to cover up the often-preventable sanitation failures of the meat industry. Osterholm may wish to blame lack of awareness or advocacy groups for this trend, but, in our view, consumers are exercising appropriate caution in the face of unknown hazards.