Public Citizen Repeats Call for Correct Information on

Aug. 16, 2004

Public Citizen Repeats Call for Correct Information on
Irradiated Food in School Lunch Program

Controversial MinnesotaPilot Program Still Listed as “Model”
Despite Evident Failure

 WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is still misleading consumers with incorrect information on its Web site and in its publicity materials about irradiated meat in the National School Lunch Program – including listing the controversial Minnesota pilot program as a model of success – 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 federal school lunch program.   Food service directors and school officials in each district can choose whether to purchase irradiated ground beef for their schools.  The Minnesota Department of Education, formerly known as the Minnesota Department of Children, Families and Learning, has ordered some irradiated ground beef for a small number of schools in the state for the upcoming school year.

 The current promotional materials from the USDA still hype last year’s pilot program, run by the Minnesota Department   of Education, which involved developing educational materials about food irradiation in three school districts:    Spring Lake Park, Sauk Rapids and Willmar.   The USDA provided the Minnesota Department of Education with a $151,000 grant to distribute flyers about irradiated food and conduct a survey to gauge reaction to the materials.  However, the materials were biased in favor of irradiation and the program’s main partners were all tied to the irradiation and meat industries.   Eventually, one school district dropped out of the program and the other two chose not to purchase irradiated beef for their students.

  “We believe that parents and students deserve to have all of the information on irradiation 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 other concerns:

  • The USDA’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 which previously sold irradiated beef, all of them 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.”  Based on media reports and conversations with the companies, 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. 

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 create accurate materials based on the truth and not on 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 report on the Minnesota pilot program, click here. For a list of Minnesota schools that plan to purchase irradiated meat, click here.

To read the letter to Undersecretary Bost, click here.  To read the publicity materials provided by the USDA, click here.