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USDA “Education” Project Distorts Truth About Food Irradiation

Oct. 16, 2003

USDA “Education” Project Distorts Truth About Food Irradiation

Campaign to Encourage Schools to Serve Irradiated Foods Denounced;
Passage of Right-to-Know Legislation Urged

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Information about food irradiation that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has begun offering to school districts across the country is inaccurate and misleading, the consumer group Public Citizen said today. The agency’s new information program follows its decision in May to permit irradiated beef in the National School Lunch Program.

The USDA last week posted its materials on the Web and is urging all state food service directors to use them. The materials were developed by the Minnesota Department of Education as part of an “education” campaign to promote irradiation in three Minnesota school districts. The USDA is now planning to expand the campaign nationwide. The campaign has come under fire since it was revealed that the food irradiation industry exerted undue influence over the direction of the program, to the exclusion of consumer groups.

“Given that this is National School Lunch Week, it is particularly galling that this so-called education project is nothing more than a propaganda campaign for the food irradiation industry,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The food irradiation industry has not gotten much traction in the marketplace, so its next scheme is to get the federal government to bail it out by serving irradiated ground beef to unsuspecting schoolchildren.”

The “education” project was such a failure in Minnesota that one school district – Sauk Rapids – dropped out because officials there felt they would be promoting irradiation instead of educating parents and students about it. The other two districts – Spring Lake Park and Willmar –decided against ordering irradiated ground beef for the 2003-2004 school year. In addition, a number of California school districts – in Los Angeles, Berkeley, Ukiah and Point Arena – have banned irradiated foods. Other school districts that have said they will not serve irradiated foods include Boston, Cleveland, New York City and San Diego.

The USDA’s materials contain a “Public Relations Tool Kit,” describing how to promote irradiation at the school district level. Misleading statements in the material include:

• “Irradiation produces no unique chemicals.”

Reality: Researchers have known for more than 30 years that irradiation causes the formation of chemical byproducts, including a class of chemicals called 2-ACBs, which recently were shown to promote the cancer-development process in rats.

• “The best scientific studies, conducted over many years, show no adverse health effects from consuming irradiated food.”

Reality: Animals fed irradiated foods in experiments dating back 50 years have suffered dozens of health problems, including premature death, mutations, reproductive problems, immune system disorders, tumors, organ damage and stunted growth. Further, there is a lack of research on the potential health effects of feeding irradiated foods to children, who are more susceptible than adults to adverse effects of consuming toxic substances.

• “Vitamin losses from irradiation are insignificant and are lower than those from canning or freezing.”

Reality: Studies have shown that some foods can lose up to 95 percent of their vitamin content when irradiated.

• “There is no link between food irradiation and nuclear power or nuclear weapons.”

Reality: Radioactive cobalt-60, produced by a nuclear reaction, is used to irradiate food. Cesium-137, a waste product of nuclear bomb production, can legally be used for irradiation, though it is not now being used. All forms of ionizing radiation – whether generated by an electronic beam or a radioactive isotope – cause the same adverse effects in food.

• “Irradiation results in little if any change to the appearance, taste and nutritional value of food.”

Reality: Numerous studies indicate that irradiation can corrupt the flavor, odor, appearance and texture of food. Beef can smell like a wet dog, pork can turn red, fruit and vegetables can become mushy, and eggs can become runny. A Consumer Reports study on irradiated foods published in August 2003 found that irradiated ground beef had a “singed hair” taste.

• “NASA has been irradiating food for its astronauts since the 1970s…and experience with NASA astronauts indicates compounds formed during food irradiation pose no unique risk to human beings.”

Reality: According to NASA, less than 2 percent of the food consumed by astronauts on space missions is irradiated, and eating it is optional. The astronauts are not required to eat irradiated food after their missions have been completed, so this is not a valid example for the USDA to use.

Public Citizen supports the passage of the Right to Know School Nutrition Act (H.R. 3120), introduced in September by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). The bill would guarantee that balanced information on food irradiation would be provided to parents and children and also requires that irradiated food served in schools be labeled.

To read the USDA’s marketing materials on irradiation, please click here.