Aug. 16, 2004
Public Citizen Repeats Call for Correct Information on Irradiated Food in School Lunch Program
Letter to Dept. of Agriculture Lists Multiple Errors in Promotional Materials
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still misleading consumers with incorrect information posted on its Web site and in its publicity materials about irradiated meat in the National School Lunch Program, despite repeated efforts by Public Citizen to fix the factual errors, according to a letter sent today by the consumer advocacy group to the Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services at USDA.
This is Public Citizen’s fourth attempt to persuade the government to provide accurate information in its materials for states and school districts regarding irradiated beef, which became available in January 2004 through the National School Lunch Program. Food service directors and school officials in each district can choose whether to purchase irradiated ground beef for their schools.
“Even though the USDA has opened the door to permitting irradiated food in the National School Lunch Program, we believe that parents and students deserve to have all of the information on the technology so that they can make an informed choice,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s food program. “Parents and school officials reading these materials – which are riddled in errors – would be unable to make an informed choice because they aren’t being told the facts.”
Among Public Citizen’s concerns:
- The agency’s “Irradiated Commodity Beef: Frequently Asked Questions” Web page notes that “Nearly two dozen supermarket chains now provide irradiated meat for their customers in some 30 states across the country.” However, when Public Citizen recently called 15 major national supermarket chains that previously sold irradiated beef, all of them said they had stopped carrying the product.
- The site also notes that “Two major restaurant chains offer irradiated meat products in 145 establishments in the Upper Midwestern States.” Public Citizen assumes this refers to Dairy Queen and Embers America, the two chains that advertised using it last year. On Aug. 5, 2004, Public Citizen called the corporate headquarters for both companies and was informed by their officials that they no longer offer irradiated meat products in their restaurants.
- According to the “Public Relations Tool Kit” for schools that is linked to the USDA site, “The most common irradiation procedure in use today involves electronic beams using ordinary electricity, not radioactive materials.” However, the company that used the e-beam technology to irradiate food, SureBeam, went bankrupt in January and is no longer in business. Instead, the USDA has selected Qualipaq Meats to be the sole vendor of irradiated meat to the National School Lunch Program. Qualipaq Meats is using an irradiation firm that treats its meat with the radioactive isotope cobalt-60 – not electronic beams.
- The materials cite a pilot program carried out last year in Minnesota as an example of a “model procedure” on how to disseminate information on irradiated foods to parents and students. But the program was mired in controversy and its end result was that none of the three school districts selected for the pilot project even chose to offer irradiated beef to their students.
These errors also may lull readers into a false security about irradiation because they gloss over the controversy surrounding irradiated food and don’t provide concerns about the long-term health effects of consuming it.
“We urge the USDA to correct its materials and provide the truth, not marketing gimmicks designed to trick consumers into believing that irradiated food is a widespread and common consumer product,” said Hauter. “Given that the National School Lunch Program feeds our nation’s most vulnerable children, it is vital that meals served at school are healthy, nutritious and safe – and that parents know what their children are eating.”
Public Citizen has written the USDA three times previously, twice in 2003 – on March 18 and April 17 – and once earlier this year on July 1, requesting that their materials present a fair and accurate overview of irradiation. Each time, the organization has offered suggestions on how to develop materials that will present both sides of the issue of irradiation. Although a USDA representative has twice met with consumer groups, including Public Citizen, so far none of their input has been included in the materials.
To read Public Citizen’s letter to Undersecretary Bost, click here.
To read the publicity materials provided by the USDA, click here.