What's the beef?

Public schools may now serve irradiated meat

Sound Consumer | February 2004

by Goldie Caughlan, PCC Nutrition Education Manager

Text image that says 'What's the beef?' from the cover artwork for the February 2004 Sound Consumer

(February 2004) — The flurry of food safety stories making headlines recently is hard to keep up with and digest:

"Hepatitis A in green onions from Mexico"

"E. coli recalls for ground beef and some produce"

"Tuna and other fish loaded with mercuryDioxin and PCBs found in all farmed and some wild salmon"

"Dioxin and PCBs found in all farmed and some wild salmon"

"Mad cow disease is here and probably in the meat"

Yet there's one more story to add to the menu: the news that, as of January 1 this year, 27 million U.S. kids who eat lunch and maybe breakfast and other snacks in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) subsidized school and daycare cafeterias may now be eating irradiated beef in their burgers, tacos, pizza and other popular treats served in the National School Lunch Program.

Image of school children eating lunch. From the cover artwork for the February 2004 Sound Consumer

Does this mean the Feds are acting to protect our children? That they're trying to make sure that beef, if not other foods, will be extra-safe with U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved technology to kill pathogens? It might be a seemingly logical conclusion that many would draw. But it would be wrong.

Right of "equal access"
The primary reason that kids may begin eating irradiated beef this year is that the food irradiation industry literally went and got an act of Congress. In order to get what it deemed a right of "equal access" to the USDA's deep pockets and get irradiated beef into the schools, it engaged the help of Senator Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa. Iowa, after all, has a large irradiation facility and the industry got Harkin to use the 2002 Farm Bill to tuck a hitchhiker, an unrelated "rider" into the 2002 Farm Bill.

Although there was scant opportunity to give public comment, consumer groups including Public Citizen and others did get the word out. Thousands of parents, teachers and others commented quickly, with 91 percent vehemently opposed, but the public input went unrequited. Senator Harkin's efforts resulted in a directive that gave the irradiation industry the "equal access" it wanted.

The directive now says that the USDA "shall not prohibit the use of any technology to improve food safety that has been approved by the Secretary of Agriculture or has been approved or is otherwise allowed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services" [for use in various commodity purchase programs].

Thus, the food irradiation industry gained "market access" to the tax dollars that the USDA spends each year on school food programs. It also gains the marketing advantage of being viewed in a more favorable light as "the protector" of children against potentially deadly contaminants.

What will not be said by the industry or the USDA is that feces and other filth are not removed from meat when the pathogens are killed in the irradiation process. The filth is still there on the food. Neither irradiation nor cooking changes that. Not all the pathogens are guaranteed to be destroyed — just reduced in numbers — as the industry and public health statements remind the public.

The industry wants to avoid liability if sued, if any such guarantee or warranty is presumed. Any raw beef or other irradiated food still must be washed, stored and prepared with care to avoid contamination and cross-contamination with other food. There is major concern expressed by public health organizations — even those that may not directly question the safety of irradiated food — that irradiation allows a false sense of safety, that consumers and cooks will stop using safe food handling practices.

Consumer concerns
There are a couple of consumer concerns. First, the safety of eating irradiated beef — or any irradiated food — never has been tested credibly on any human population — let alone dumping it into millions of children. And second, schools are not required to consult with parents or the community or even to notify them that they're choosing to purchase irradiated beef or other food. USDA bulletins have "urged" open communication, but it's the school's decision.

The USDA — the same organization that's been excoriated for food safety failures that contribute to the very conditions making food like beef so frequently contaminated and make irradiation sound like a good solution — has another role. Every year, it spends millions of taxpayers' dollars to buy commodities from farmers for school lunch programs. Now, for the first time, it will include buying irradiated beef and offering it to schools, many of which may accept it even though it will cost about 20 cents a pound more.

The main motivation, however, on the part of USDA in buying agricultural surpluses from food producers is to provide price supports, to keep market prices high and arguably to market U.S. agriculture to foreign markets. Critics charge that these multiple roles of our current regulatory system create conflicts of interest. The conflicts arise precisely because the USDA and FDA also are mandated to consider economic impacts of any policies affecting industry.

Numerous independent scientists and legal researchers have relentlessly followed the unfolding saga for decades, as the FDA has purported to review research and give a thumbs-up to the safety of this technology. Reams of testimony and input have been given by scientists and a variety of consumer groups, repeatedly and sharply questioning FDA processes and decisions, cautioning the agency — and Congress — that the ball is not just being dropped by the FDA but is bouncing from one error to another. Just like the USDA in its field of oversight.

The FDA has an admittedly daunting, awesome and perhaps unenviable responsibility as "the" arbiter of all decisions on the safety and appropriateness of all new food technologies and processes. That's why independent public and private input and oversight — real democratic "citizen nosiness" — plays such a key role in building trust in the system.

Through the years, FDA advisory committees and staff scientists have reviewed hundreds of studies on food irradiation.

Critics, however, complain of a consistent pattern of the FDA ignoring and dismissing every study where researchers' results raised questions of serious health effects. (See Broken Record report (PDF) at www.citizen.org.)

These questions were raised by studies on several types of animals fed with various irradiated agricultural products. The studies were conducted in this country and around the world. Findings have pointed to carcinogenic, mutagenic and teratogenic abnormalities, immune problems, low birth weight, shortened lifespans, nutritional deficiencies, unusually high numbers of still births, kidney and other organ damage, and many other serious questions.

Critics say these concerns should not be treated lightly, but each should be looked at carefully. It would seem prudent that new studies attempt to replicate results, especially since the types of findings are horrendous if even a fraction are confirmed.

Instead, negative findings of unexplained problems were ignored or dismissed by the FDA, which cited some variant of "poor study design," which could mean anything. This raised more questions among independent reviewers of the process, including scientists who found no problems in some of the designs.

Of URPs and labels
Even though the FDA has approved more and more food for irradiation, the industry has whined for years that it hasn't been able to attract more investors to expand the industry because so many potential consumers are made fearful of eating irradiated food. The industry argues that it's all because of a pesky FDA requirement that some irradiated food (few) must be labeled with such scary-sounding words as "treated with ionizing radiation" and must display the international irradiation symbol, the "radura."

The industry also has argued that irradiation should be treated just like genetic engineering technology, that is, no requirement for any labeling whatsoever. The argument is that both technologies have been judged "safe," yet only food irradiation has been cast into the pit of being a "food additive" that requires labeling. A label was required — thankfully — when it was agreed that there are indeed numerous substances formed in irradiated foods that never have been found in anything untreated.

These "unique radiolytic products" (or URPs) are caused by free radicals knocked loose in irradiation, careening around, slamming into and damaging vitamins, enzymes and other good guys. Many re-combine and form the new additives, the URPs. These "unique radiolytic properties" are found in all irradiated foods. Higher-fat foods such as meats have higher levels of free radicals, and hence have higher levels of URPs.

Yet, half a century after URPs were discovered and acknowledged, they're still not well understood or studied. Some new work has been done and the implications are devastating. (See sidebar "Recommended resources.")

"Cold pasteurization"
Yet there's more. The irradiation industry received another big boost from Senator Harkin in another "rider" amendment attached to the 2002 Farm Bill. This one addressed the industry's view that the language required on current irradiation labels scares consumers. Industry said that words such as "ionizing radiation" are viewed by consumers as a warning.

The industry argued that since food irradiation was legal and judged safe by the FDA, the wording should be informational only, akin to "pasteurized" on milk labels. It lobbied for "cold pasteurized," but a storm of negative press caused it to back off somewhat. The rider in the bill passed nonetheless and it now directs the FDA to revisit the wording of the irradiation label and redevelop language that won't be viewed as a warning.

PCC reviewed irradiation
I've worked on food irradiation since 1987, when several PCC staff and concerned members researched what was then available to learn. Appalled, our committee advised the PCC Board of Trustees, which established a policy that year not to carry irradiated foods unless or until any different or persuasive information would cause a change in that decision (which hasn't occurred). The FDA in 1986 had just approved irradiation for wheat and wheat flour, pork, meat, herbs, spices and herbs, tea, onions and potatoes.

Since the radura label is required only for "whole" or single items (i.e., label the flour, but not if used with anything else, and not if served in a restaurant, institution or other eating venue), it appears there's potential for massive, long-term public health consequences if this program becomes widely implemented. The more I learn about food irradiation, the more disturbing it is.

School experiment?
Putting irradiated beef into childrens' school food is a massive feeding experiment with our most vulnerable and valuable population. What are our policymakers thinking?

School lunch tray

There is absolutely no requirement that any notice or information be given to parents or the public if irradiated beef is included on the school menu. There is no requirement that any sign or display of the radura label be on the school menu parents receive, or on the premises where the food is served. This is also true for irradiated foods served in any eating venue, which means we could be eating it unwittingly any time, any place.

So far, very few restaurants have offered irradiated beef, although in the upper Midwest several Dairy Queens have been featuring it. Apparently it has done well enough that it's soon to be expanded to other Dairy Queens in other states. Some supermarkets in the Kroger chain reportedly are rolling out irradiated beef in test markets.

The consumers' role
As someone once said, "If we don't change direction, we're likely to end up where we're headed." Fortunately, PCC members know there is another food system model — one that's more local, smaller scale and sustainable. And while PCC members may even take credit for their part in helping to usher a sustainable model to national awareness, there's still work to do. (See Goldie's Insights)

Seattle-area schools haven't announced any interest in irradiated meat for local school lunch menus, but remember, notification is not required. Nonetheless, parents should know that one individual in a school can influence decisions and make a difference. Farm-to-cafeteria programs providing locally grown, fresh food for schools are sprouting up — often at the behest of parents. (See Goldie's Insights, for resources.)

Allowing irradiated meat "equal access" into the USDA lunch program is ultimately, along with other food safety stories, a symptom of an industrialized and globalized food system. For example, organic standards prohibit irradiation, and even the balance sheets show that small farms are more productive than industrial-size farms, at a higher profit per acre, too. The industrial model is not sustainable; it just doesn't know that yet. All the good growers and ranchers who have long done the right things for the right reasons for so many years prove another food system model is not only possible, but already being done.

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