Al Krebs' Agribusiness Examiner #26 on Food Irradiation

The following is an excerpt on the food irradiation controversy from the
excellent electronic newsletter published by Al Krebs, called Agribusiness
Examiner. To subscribe to Agribusiness Examiner send an email to:

Agribusiness Examiner #26 (March 22, 1999)


The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is currently planning to remove
all labeling requirements for irradiated food. The FDA has approved
irradiation for essentially all foods, including fruits and vegetables.
Without such labeling consumers will have no way to know if their food has
been irradiated save a public health catastrophe.

To date the labeling requirement has been the sole impediment to
widespread use of irradiation. Irradiation proponents fear that even the
current requirement -- a tiny statement no bigger than the ingredients, and
no statement at all for irradiated components of mixed food--will scare
consumers. The FDA proposal to remove labeling practically begs for
"consumer focus" studies that will tell it how to "re-educate" the 77% of
the public that does not want irradiation.

Irradiation has powerful friends in the food processing and nuclear
industries, the medical establishment, and the Federal government. For
several years they have been engaging in a covert public relations campaign
to convince the general public that irradiation is the answer to food
safety problems, like contaminated Guatemalan raspberries and lunch meats.

In recent years such health problems have been overwhelmingly concentrated
in the meat and poultry processing industry, for example, Jack-in-the-Box,
Hudson Foods, IBP and Sara Lee. Critics of irradiation believe it is
really not only just a quick (and temporary) fix for poor slaughterhouse
sanitation, but also a way of disposing of nuclear wastes by selling them
to private industry and leaving the taxpayers to fund the inevitable
clean-up costs.

The Campaign for Food Safety (formerly known as the Pure Food Campaign) is
urging people to send their comments by May 18 to the FDA demanding
prominent labeling, the use of the terms "irradiation" or "irradiated," the
use of the radura symbol, and rejecting FDA alternative terms such as "cold
pasteurization" and "electronic pasteurization" as misleading and not
satisfactory. The Campaign also points out that the absence of a statement
would be misleading because irradiation destroys vitamins and causes
changes in sensory and spoilage qualities that are not obvious or expected
by the consumer.

It is also pointed out by the Campaign that the FDA is only asking for
comments on the issues of 1) whether labeling of irradiated foods should
remain and 2) if so, what kind of label. The FDA has already decided that
irradiation is "safe;" the irradiation advocates in the medical
establishment, corporate agribusiness, the nuclear industry and Congress
know that labels frighten consumers. The irradiators know that most
consumers do not want irradiated foods (77% according to a CBS poll in

Yet, in November 1997 corporate America’s blank check in the White House
signed into law a Congressional bill reducing the size of the irradiation
label. As an agency overseen by Congress, the FDA is only able to ask what
kind of labeling it should require.

This is NOT the time, the Campaign stresses, to tell the FDA you are
against irradiation for if one states that they don't want to eat
irradiated food and that labels will help them avoid such food it will
give the FDA all the more reason to eliminate labeling since the FDA has
already decided irradiation is safe, and it doesn't want to scare people.

The complete labeling proposal can be read at:

Send comments before May 18, 1999 to: Dockets Management Branch
Food and Drug Administration
5630 Fishers Lane, Room 1061
Rockville, MD 20852.
Refer to Docket #98N-1038, "Irradiation in the production,
processing and handling of food"

For more information on food irradiation contact the Campaign for Food
Safety, 860 Highway 61, Little Marais, Minnesota 55614. (213) 387-5122 or Web page with links and background:


Food irradiation, a process in which gamma rays, X-rays or electrons are
passed through food or a food package to kill insects, molds or
microorganisms that can lead to spoilage or disease, has been rapidly
gaining popularity among corporate agribusiness companies, which praise it
for its safety and its extraordinary ability to extend the shelf life of

Yet, despite the fact that food irradiation has never been proven safe at
even low doses, the FDA has already approved its use on meat, pork, wheat,
flour, potatoes, fruits and vegetables, spices and vegetable seasonings
even after Congress in 1958 passed an amendment to the Food and Drug Act
saying that irradiation was to be treated as a food additive, subject to
the same safety testing required of any new additives.

Meanwhile, a growing body of evidence exists that suggests irradiation on
the food supply could have not only very serious health and environmental
consequences, but serious economic effects as well. Critics contend that
the issue of food irradiation turns on two major issues: safety and the
consumer's right to know.

While claiming that food irradiation would end the need for chemical
poisons in pest control, tests conducted on lab animals eating irradiated
food have shown mixed results. According to an internal 1982 FDA review 84%
of some 413 studies were inconclusive or inadequate while only one percent
of the remaining 69 studies "appeared to support safety." Many of those
tests, incidentally, were conducted by Industrial Biotest Laboratories,
which was found guilty in 1983 of falsifying chemical poison tests for the

Also it should be pointed out that irradiation would not necessarily reduce
the use of chemical poisons being used on food. The irradiation process
would come after the harvest, so all the chemicals used in growing the food
would continue to be used and no one really knows authoritatively what
would happen to those chemical residues after being irradiated.
Dr. John Gofman, professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of
California - Berkeley and a world renowned authority on low level
radiation, has questioned whether any genuine research on the matter of
food irradiation has been carried out to date and even if such testing is

"The kind of epidemiological study required to find out whether or not a
diet of irradiated food will increase (or possibly decrease) the frequency
of cancer or genetic injuries among humans simply has not been done. What
is more, such a study is unlikely ever to be done, because it would require
controlling the diets of at least 200,000 humans of various age-groups for
at least 30 years, and following their health-histories for at least 50
years (preferably their full life spans)."

In addition to satisfactory testing, the FDA has also admitted that "there
might be changes in organoleptic properties (taste, color, smell, texture)
that could make the processed food more or less desirable to individual

"Radiation is a carcinogen, mutagen and teratogen," Dr. Geraldine Dettman,
a Brown University safety officer, points out, "at doses of 100,000 rads on
fruits and vegetables, the cells of the fruits and vegetables will be
killed, and most insect larvae will be destroyed, but fungi, bacteria and
viruses growing on the fruit and vegetables will not be killed . . . They
will be mutated, possibly leading to more virulent contaminants."

While the FDA currently requires "any source of radiation" used in food
processing or packaging to be labeled the food industry has been seeking
for some time to change the definition of radiation from an "additive" to a
"process," which is not required to be identified on food labels.

Proposals in the past published in The Federal Register by the FDA require
that the words "treated with radiation" appear on all irradiated foods not
sold in combination with other foods. Only "whole" irradiated foods such as
fruits and vegetables are now required to be labeled, not the irradiated
ingredients of processed products, such as certain fruits in cans of fruit

Two Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Department of Nutrition and
Food Science professors Julius Coon and Edward Josephson have argued that,
"labeling would tend to have an unfavorable psychological effect by
implying that, in the view of health regulatory authorities, the safety of
the labeled product is questionable, and the purchaser will be using it at
his or her own risk."

Or, as one labeling proponent more succinctly noted "labeling would give
irradiation the kiss of death." The health effects of food irradiation,
however, is but just one of the equally nightmarish consequences of
utilizing such a process in the manufacturing of what we eat each day.


Using irradiation to "cleanse" our food would also assuredly add to the
many environmental and safety issues relating to the dangers of the
trafficking of nuclear materials through our cities and rural communities.

The Department of Energy (DOE), not surprisingly a long-time supporter of
food irradiation, has even advanced the idea of building mobile food
irradiation units, which would move to different farm areas to irradiate
crops immediately after harvesting. Not only would this lead to the further
centralization of agriculture as regional production would be required, but
plant species would have to be further hybridized to facilitate radiation
tolerance, thus possibly increasing crop vulnerabilities.
Advocates of food irradiation also speak of it in terms of reducing the
disposal costs of nuclear plant wastes whose byproducts could be utilized
by a possible 1000 different food processing plants scattered throughout
the nation.

Robert Alvarez, a former director of the Nuclear Weapons and Power Project
at the Environmental Policy Institute, has pointed out that, "much of the
research on the safety of irradiated foods has been done by the U.S. Army.
"This is because the nuclear weapons program has generated enormous amounts
of intensely radioactive waste byproducts from the production of nuclear
explosive materials like plutonium. At DOE's Hanford, Washington facility,
80 to 90 million curies of radiocesium was separated and encapsulated for
commercial use."

Testifying before a 1985 hearing of the Subcommittee on Department
Operations, Research and Foreign Agriculture of the House Committee on
Agriculture, Alvarez was voicing the EPI's opposition to a bill, introduced
by a Washington State Congressman whose district included the Hanford
facility, which would have forbidden state and local governments from
regulating food irradiation independently and also forbidden them to
require consumer labeling or other consumer protection not required under
federal law.
Martin A. Welt, the chairman and president of Radiation Technology Inc. and
over the years one of the nation's most outspoken advocates for food
irradiation believed that irradiation was "the most important
food-preservation technique for mankind" and that "no other method will do
so much for public health." The public, however, has not agreed with Welt
over the years as consumer survey after survey shows that a majority of
people would not buy food that has been subjected to radiation.

It is also worth noting that Welt's firm, which operated four irradiation
plants in New Jersey, Arkansas and North Carolina, was repeatedly cited in
the 1980's by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for operating its
Rockaway, New Jersey plant in a manner that could jeopardize the safety of
its workers --- and in one case did result in one worker being severely
exposed to radiation.

In March, 1988 Radiation Technology pleaded guilty to charges that it
submitted falsified documents to the NRC concerning safety procedures at
its plant in Rockaway. It also admitted that its officials had lied to NRC
investigators and radiation specialists about the length of time it
operated without radiation safety monitoring equipment in place. Four
months later Welt was found guilty by a federal jury of ordering his
workers to bypass safety devices and lie about it to federal inspectors.

For farmers irradiating food would not only further concentrate the food
processing and manufacturing industry, but it would also rob many of them
of their traditional markets for it would make it infinitely easier for
multinational corporate agribusiness firms to preserve a whole variety of
perishable crops from distant countries. This would allow them to further
exploit tenant farmers and peasant slave labor in those other nations while
at the same time accelerating their planned and continuing permanent
displacement of U.S. farmers.

U.S. food producers already are facing increasing competition from imports
which are cheap only because they are grown and harvested by workers paid
not even a subsistence wage. Irradiation of foreign produce would only add
to this stream of imports while encouraging further exploitation of the
poor in Third World countries.

It was Alvarez who pointed out in this regard,

"For several years, polls of the America public have consistently shown
that shoppers are not interested in buying food if they know it has been
irradiated. . . the Reagan Administration was no doubt aware of this fact
as it aggressively promoted food irradiation through its foreign aid
programs, particularly the Agency for International Development (AID). Food
irradiation facilities were being planned for several developing nations
which lack even a minimal regulatory program for such an ultra hazardous