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Why Vegetarians Should Care About Irradiation--Including Meat and Poultry

revised February 2001

Don't be an elitist: Regulatory policy in the US is pushing our food system into two streams: "regular food" (which can be genetically engineered, irradiated, grown in sewage sludge, given antibiotics, etc.)--versus organic. Don't support this model, which is designed to keep organic activists unconcerned about the food system. Even if you can afford to eat 100% organic, most people can't. Support safety, sustainability and adequate labeling for food that isn't organic.

What's legal to irradiate in the US: Meat, poultry, shell eggs, wheat, wheat flour, fruits, vegetables, seeds that will be sprouted (like alfalfa), spices, herbs and herbal teas. The FDA is currently considering a food industry petition to irradiate fresh juices, seeds, sprouts, processed fresh vegetables (like baby carrots) and frozen foods, and another petition to allow irradiation of crustaceans (lobster, crabs, shrimp). The USDA is considering a proposal to allow irradiation for imported fruits and vegetables.

What's actually irradiated now: Some beef, poultry and Hawaiian papayas. Small amounts of fruits and vegetables.

What's labeled: No required labels to the consumer: Foods prepared in a restaurant, deli, school, airline, etc. like salads and sandwiches. Manufactured, prepared or processed plant foods, like orange concentrate, wheat flour, or chopped papayas in a "fresh" fruit salad. Packaged spices, herbs and supplements like garlic and ginseng. Tiny labels (the size of the print on the statement of ingredients) with no special color or design, and the radura: Only required for plant foods that are sold whole in a package, like a bag of onions. Packaged whole meat and poultry. Meat or poultry components of processed foods (like chicken in a frozen stew). Tiny labels on the display or box, or on the fruit itself: Plant foods sold whole, like papayas. (However, there is little or no enforcement).

Why irradiate? The big economic and public relations benefits come from irradiating beef, especially hamburger, and chicken. Recalls of contaminated meat are very expensive, in addition to the financial cost of food-poisoning lawsuits. Each food-poisoning incident damages the carefully maintained "family-friendly" image of fast food restaurants. For plant foods, irradiation kills most insects/bacteria, can increase shipping/storage life, and allows packers, processors and restaurants to avoid food poisoning lawsuits. It also allows centralized production, because a large company that irradiates can ship its fruits a long distance without ripening and drive local farmers who don't irradiate out of the market.

How irradiation harms the food: The high-energy irradiation blast breaks molecules and DNA, and creates free radicals that damage vitamins and damage or kill the living enzymes in fresh foods. Vegetarians who buy irradiated raw foods in order to eat them raw will receive a nutritionally inferior product. Also, new, untested chemicals and small amounts of carcinogens are created. There are no long-term human feeding studies, and only one small study on children which showed health effects.

Why the food industry wants to take off the labels: They know the public doesn't want to eat food hit with millions of chest x-rays, even if they come from electron-beams or x-rays instead of nuclear materials. The food is damaged in the same way, whatever the source of irradiation.

How legalization of irradiation supports factory farming: The meat/poultry industry has taken advantage of the option of irradiation to push for regulatory changes that essentially eliminate USDA inspection. With faster and faster slaughter lines and company inspection, dirtier meat can be produced that is then irradiated at the end of production. Irradiation allows the industry to avoid the costs of impartial inspection and humane slaughter, and continue to present itself as Old MacDonald's Farm.

How irradiation of meat and poultry will force irradiation of plant foods: The FDA will cease to require any labels if consumers 'accept' irradiated meat and poultry. Meanwhile, irradiation facilities are being built around the U.S. and abroad. This is a coordinated plan by public health authorities, the nuclear industry, and the global food industry to irradiate much of the food worldwide, and "globalize" food production--long-distance trade instead of less "efficient" local production.

Environmental reasons to get active now: If irradiation is established, plant foods will be genetically engineered for radiation tolerance. These new seeds will be patented, increasing the centralization of our food supply. Also, although most of the new facilities being built in the US use electricity--for now--other countries without a reliable source of cheap electricity will use nuclear materials. And by centralizing agriculture, irradiation threatens sustainable small farms.

Global trade reasons to get involved now: Irradiated plant foods can be shipped long distances without appearing to rot. Local agriculture everywhere will suffer because cheap irradiated imports will compete with locally grown foods. Also, if the FDA takes off the labels, the US will be able to force other countries to accept our unlabeled irradiated foods. And we won't be able to refuse theirs.

How to avoid irradiated food: The only sure way is to eat organic. Most natural food stores have been uninterested in this issue (Wild Oats is an exception), probably because they are already selling irradiated supplements, and there is no easy means yet of testing a food to see if it has been irradiated. Otherwise, stay up to date on which plant foods are actually being irradiated, because most won't be labeled.

What you can do now: See the action alerts on our web site. Contact us to be notified when the FDA asks for public comment on the revised labeling regulations. Participate in activities opposing irradiation of meat/poultry. Write a letter to the editor and to Congress. Ask for a speaker. For more information, visit our web site <>.

Provided by the Organic Consumers Assn. (formerly the Campaign for Food Safety), 6101 Cliff Estate Road, Little Marais, Minnesota 55614, (218) 226-4164. Contact irradiation coordinator Danila at for media interviews, opinion pieces, handouts, or to be notified of future action alerts.

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