Is the cure worse than the disease? An old cliché perhaps, but it seems a particularly apt question in the current debate over food irradiation.
Irradiation may appear to many as a miracle means of swiftly removing bacteria from food supplies, but underneath the hype lie major questions about the economic, health, and social costs of the process.
Before these questions were answered, the Food and Drug Administration under the Clinton Administration loosened irradiation-labeling rules, lowered scientific standards the food industry has to meet and abbreviated its review of irradiation requests. Concerns about the wholesomeness of the irradiated food expressed by consumer and environmental groups were bluntly dismissed by FDA. Not a single request for a hearing on the implementation of a food irradiation rule has ever been granted.
The irradiation craze has reduced the focus on cleaning up food processing plants. Instead of improving the filthy conditions endemic to factory-style slaughterhouses, food industry executives and government officials are embracing an under-studied technology to prevent food-borne bacteria from sickening people.
Irradiation does nothing to remove the sources of many harmful bacteria the feces, urine, pus, and vomit often left on beef, chicken, and lamb as a result of dirty slaughterhouse conditions.
Dozens of research studies conducted over the past half century have shown that food exposed to radiation can cause serious health problems in laboratory animals, resulting in shorter life spans, chromosomal abnormalities, low birth weight, immune and reproductive system problems, organ damage and tumors.
We do know that irradiation destroys essential vitamins and nutrients in food, including substantial percentages of vitamin A in eggs and beta-carotene in orange juice. Irradiation kills not only "bad" microorganisms, but also the "good" ones, such as yeasts and molds that keep botulism at bay. Irradiation might also spawn mutant forms of E. coli, salmonella, staphylococcus, and other bacteria.
If the irradiated food is not dangerous enough, the facilities where food is exposed to radiation provide even more cause for alarm.
Between 1974 and 1989 alone, 45 accidents and violations were recorded at U.S. irradiation plants, including those used to sterilize medical supplies. In one mishap, water laced with radioactive cobalt-60 was flushed down the public sewer system in Dover, New Jersey, in 1982.
With all these dangers, why has the U.S. government legalized irradiation with so little study? And why did the FDA rely on only seven of the more than 400 scientific studies to determine that irradiated food is safe for human consumption?
One answer might be found in the political muscle of the $460-billion food processing industry led by the National Food Processors Association and numerous allied groups. It is not an industry whose wishes are often ignored by official Washington.
But citizens can provide a countervailing force. We need to start demanding that our elected representatives raise questions with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the FDA about this irradiation craze.
We need to insist on full study of the dangers as well as the benefits. And long overdue are demands for a cleanup of food processing plants. Irradiation isn't the answer. Stricter standards vigorously enforced can make food safer and healthier without turning to unproven and dangerous technology lacking basic safeguards.
Copyright © 2001 San Francisco Bay Guardian