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Public Interest Groups Denounce Giant Food’s Decision to Sell Irradiated Meat

Nov. 14, 2002

Public Interest Groups Denounce Giant Food’s Decision to Sell Irradiated Meat

Groups Urge Chain to Remove Product from Shelves

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Giant Food’s decision to sell irradiated ground beef is irresponsible because of the potential harm to consumers, the environment and animal welfare, public interest groups said today at a press conference outside the Giant store in Cleveland Park. The groups urged Giant to use its buying power to demand that meat suppliers produce clean, wholesome meat free of irradiation.

The grocery store chain, which has stores in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware, New Jersey and the District of Columbia, began carrying irradiated ground beef in its stores Nov. 3. The irradiated meat is produced by Carneco Foods LLC (in partnership with the world’s largest beef producer IBP), in Columbus, Neb., and is irradiated by SureBeam, the largest irradiation company.

In calling for a new approach to food safety, speakers at the press conference highlighted numerous health, safety and regulatory questions about irradiation.

“At the same time they are pushing irradiation, the meat industry is trying to take away the authority of the USDA to inspect meat and slow down the lines in meat plants,” said Tom Devine, legal director for the Government Accountability Project. “Irradiation is a poor substitute for strong government meat inspection and clean production.”

Added Ken Midkiff, director of the Sierra Club’s Clean Water Campaign, “Irradiation is a tool big meat companies want to use to mask the filthy conditions on giant factory farms. Intensive animal production methods not only have an impact on food safety, but produce staggering amounts of waste that foul the air and water and drive family farmers out of business.”

The arrival of irradiated ground beef in Giant stores has received considerable media attention, and the product has been deeply discounted. But previous test-marketing efforts of irradiated food in several states ended with the product being pulled from shelves due to disappointing sales. The federal government has also scrutinized SureBeam’s advertising practices, which include comparing irradiation to the familiar process of pasteurization.

“Over the past few years, people across the country have rejected irradiated meat,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “But instead of allowing consumers to make an informed choice, SureBeam compares its products to entirely different processes – like pasteurization. We are here to educate the public with the rest of the story about irradiation, so consumers can say ‘no’ to this technology with their food dollars.”

Irradiation depletes vitamins and nutrients, and forms new chemicals that have not been adequately studied for toxicity. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) did not properly assess the safety of irradiated food before legalizing it for human consumption, research by Public Citizen has found.

Because irradiation alters the chemistry of everything in its path, not just the bacteria it is intended to kill, irradiated foods contain chemical byproducts of the process. One class of these byproducts, called cyclobutanones, does not occur naturally in any food. They recently were found to cause genetic damage in rats, and genetic and cellular damage in human and rat cells.

Peter Jenkins, policy analyst with Center for Food Safety, pointed out that some of the chemicals found in irradiated meat have significant potential to impact human health. “There is growing scientific evidence of potential genetic damage to consumers and their future children from irradiated foods. The expansion of irradiated foods in supermarkets is an out-of-control experiment using millions of Americans as guinea pigs,” said Jenkins.

Wendy Swann, of the Animal Welfare Institute added, “Irradiated food perpetuates a system of meat production that relies on the inhumane treatment of animals. By masking the food safety problems caused by the cruel practices and inhumane conditions at massive factory farms, irradiation allows these factories, and their appalling treatment of animals, to continue.”

The groups said meat safety should be considered throughout the production process, negating the need for irradiation at the end.

“Giant and SureBeam want consumers to think that irradiation provides some ‘added assurance’ about food safety,” said Richard Caplan, environmental advocate with U.S. PIRG. “But the best way to ensure food safety is to produce wholesome meat in the first place, instead of figuring out how to kill bacteria at the last possible step. Instead of a silver bullet, we need to focus on production that will benefit family farmers, the environment and consumers.”

The groups also sent a letter to Giant Foods urging the company to reconsider its decision to stock irradiated food. It was signed by Center for Food Safety, Government Accountability Project, Sierra Club, DC Statehood Green Party, Animal Welfare Institute and Public Citizen.

To read the letter online, click here.