August 21, 2000 revised July 11, 2002
Our analysis of the FDA-sponsored pamphlet "Questions & Answers about Food Irradiation"
TEXT OF THE PAMPHLET
What is food irradiation?
Food irradiation is a process in which food products are exposed to a controlled amount of radiant energy to kill harmful bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella. The process also controls insects and parasites, reduces spoilage, and inhibits ripening and sprouting.
OCA Comment: This statement is crafted to mislead the public. "Radiant energy" sounds like sunlight. In fact, irradiated food is treated with high-speed energy beams that, unlike sunlight, ionize molecules. The free radicals caused by this "ionizing radiation" ricochet through the food and damage the DNA in bacteria, insects and the food itself. Free radicals are believed to be common cancer "promoters." That is, they promote the second-stage developments that turn the initially damaged cells into malignant (i.e., cancerous) ones. Microwaves do not harm the food in the same way as irradiation. In microwaving, food is cooked by heating the water in the molecules; the DNA in the food is not broken. Ionizing radiation includes gamma rays from nuclear materials, electrons from electron guns, and x-rays.
Is irradiated food safe?
The Food and Drug Administration has evaluated the safety of this technology over the last 40 years and has found irradiation to be safe and has approved its use for many foods. Scientific studies have shown that irradiation does not significantly reduce nutritional quality or change food taste, texture or appearance. Irradiated foods do not become radioactive. American astronauts have eaten irradiated food since the 1970s and patients with weak immune systems are sometimes fed irradiated foods to reduce the chance of infection.
OCA Comment: There are many errors and omissions here.
How does irradiation work?
Food is packed in containers and moved by conveyer belt into a shielded room. There the food is exposed briefly to a radiant-energy source; the amount of energy depends on the food. Energy waves passing through the food break molecular bonds in the DNA of bacteria, pathogens and insects. The food is left unchanged, but the number of harmful bacteria, parasites and fungi is reduced. (The food irradiation symbol, the radura, is required by the FDA on all irradiated food with the words "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation".)
Do irradiated foods cost more?
Irradiated products cost slightly more than their conventional counterparts. Some industry experts estimate the cost at two to three cents higher per pound for fruits and vegetables and three to five cents higher per pound for meat and poultry products. These costs may be offset by advantages such as keeping a product fresh longer and enhancing its safety, Food trade groups say that as irradiation becomes more common, the cost is likely to drop.
OCA Comments: Irradiated ground beef in Minnesota has recently sold for up to $1.50/lb. more than nonirradiated beef. Nobody has a crystal ball, but we can be sure that as long as irradiated food can be promoted as "better" than nonirradiated food, the price will be as high as the traffic will bear.
Are food irradiation facilities safe?
Both the electron beam and gamma ray technologies used today are safe. The electron beam facilities, like the one at Iowa State University, use an electron generator to produce a stream of high-energy electrons to form the electron beam. E-beam technology has been used for the last 15 years. The technology to produce gamma rays used Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137. Both are radioactive materials that do not give off neutrons, which means that this material does not make anything around it radioactive. This technology has been used routinely for more than 30 years to sterilize medical, dental and household products.
OCA Comment: Gamma-ray facilities, which use nuclear materials, are inherently unsafe. There have been numerous spills and leaks of radioactive material and worker exposures from irradiation facilities worldwide. The statement that this technology is used "routinely" is irrelevant.
Are irradiated foods available?
Irradiated food is becoming widely available. Some stores have sold irradiated fruits and vegetables since the early 1990s. Irradiated meat is available in some grocery stores and on menus in a few restaurants. Some spices also are irradiated to control pests.
OCA Comment: Because irradiated food that is sold in restaurants is not labeled to the consumer, no one except the packer knows how much irradiated meat/poultry is being sold. Companies that produce over 75% of the U.S.'s 9 billion pounds/year of ground beef and approximately 50% of the nearly 35 billion pounds/year of poultry have already signed agreements to use irradiation technology. Ground beef and chicken will be the most commonly irradiated foods.
What kind of machine irradiates food?
In electron beam irradiation, food is irradiated by a machine called a linear accelerator. A linear accelerator generates electrons, similar to a television tube, that are accelerated, bent and scanned over the product. No radioactive material is used. Iowa State University houses a commercial-sized electronic beam irradiator in the Linear Accelerator Facility pilot plant. The machine is similar to those used throughout the country to irradiate food products and medical products. Food also can be irradiated through a process using gamma rays produced by a safe radioactive source, such as cobalt. Another process is being developed using X-rays to irradiate food.
OCA Comments: Nuclear materials are inherently unsafe. The unnamed nuclear material "such as cobalt" is cesium-137, a byproduct of nuclear energy production. It is much more toxic and has a longer half-life than cobalt-60. The U.S. Department of Energy has pushed food irradiation for 20 years in order to sell off their pile of dangerous cesium-137. If e-beam irradiation paves the way, cobalt-60 and cesium-137 will be used for food irradiation, because the energy source is not listed on the label. In addition, electron-beams can only be used for thin, evenly sized foods like burger patties. Larger foods like whole turkeys must be irradiated with either x-rays or gamma rays from nuclear material. If irradiation is popularly accepted, the DOE will be only too happy to supply cesium-137 at cut-rate prices to irradiate foods.
Furthermore, meat that is "treated" by an e-beam accelerator receives the radiation
equivalent to 1.4 billion television sets.
What foods can be irradiated?
- fruits and vegetables
- dehydrated fruits and vegetables
- other non-food uses for irradiation include sterilizing medical products, such as surgical gloves, destroying bacteria in cosmetics, and purifying wool.
OCA Comments: In addition to the above list, shell eggs were approved by the FDA in 2001 for irradiation. A coalition of food industry groups has asked the FDA to approve luncheon meats, prepared fresh foods (e.g., salad bar items), seeds, fresh juices, sprouts and frozen foods. The FDA hasn't ruled yet, but they will probably use the same science as 15 years ago to approve these foods. If they approve, the only common foods NOT approved for irradiation would be: seafood, dairy (which is pasteurized), honey, coffee, chocolate and oils (fats become rancid easily because of the free radical creation, so they won't be irradiated if they could be eaten raw). Baked goods and dried legumes don't need irradiation. That's about it! Most of our diet could be irradiated!
Where can I get more information?
END OF TEXT OF THE FDA PAMPHLET