Food Irradiation & Nuclear Weapons


M. LaForge

The
same folks that brought you open-air bomb testing, human radiation
experiments, Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl are promoting the food
irradiation process. Ever since 1986, the FDA, the nuclear industry, and the
meat industry have moved to expose almost the entire food supply to nuclear
irradiation. But staunch citizen opposition has generally kept the business
out of use. For 14 years, Food & Water, and thousands of individuals have
kept poultry, fruits, and vegetables free of irradiation. But the struggle is
on to keep the meat supply out of this risky business.

According to an
August 1997 CBS News poll, 73 percent are against irradiation and 77
percent say they wouldn’t eat irradiated food.

How
Irradiation Works

Food
is irradiated using radioactive gamma ray sources, usually radioactive
cobalt-60 or cesium-137, or high-energy electron beams.

After
packaging, and being put into large metal boxes, the foods are placed on
conveyor belts that move past the radiation sources. The materials are hit
with the equivalent of 30 million X-rays, (according to the Spring 1998 Food
& Water
journal). The industry now uses cobalt-60 supplied by the
Canadian company Nordion International, Inc. But the only isotope available in
sufficient quantities for large-scale irradiation is cesium-137. When not in
use the cobalt or cesium is lowered into cooling ponds.

In the process,
which takes about 20 to 30 minutes, the gamma radiation passes through the
food, killing all bacteria (helpful as well as harmful) and slowing decay but
not leaving the food radioactive.

Irradiators are
used on the meats at the end of the production line, after it is already
sealed in packages. This is particularly important in ground beef, where
bacteria can easily get beneath the surface during grinding. However the
industry is lobbying for approval of irradiating unpackaged meats as well.

Cesium-137 is
radioactive waste left in huge quantities from nuclear weapons production at
Hanford in Washington State and Savannah River, South Carolina. A by-product
of nuclear reactor operation, cesium-137 is an extremely hazardous isotope
that is deadly for 600 years. It is water-soluble, which makes it terribly
dangerous in the event of an accident. As radioactive waste, it is extremely
expensive to store and keep out of the biosphere.

The Department
of Energy admitted to the House Armed Services Committee in 1983: “The
utilization of these radioactive materials simply reduces our waste handling
problem…we get some of these very hot elements like cesium and strontium out
of the waste” (Michael Colby Editor, “Food Irradiation: Why it Must Be
Stopped and How We Can Do It, An Activist Primer,” Food & Water, Inc.,
1998). Dr. Rosalie Bertell (the renowned epidemiologist from Toronto) explains
that irradiation is a convenient excuse to reprocess spent irradiated fuel
rods from weapons production reactors.

FDA spokesman
Jim Greene said in 1986 that using the cesium-137 “could substantially
reduce the cost of disposing of nuclear waste” (Grand Forks Herald,
28 April 1986).

The Downside

The
gamma rays break up the molecular structure of food, forming positively and
negatively charged particles called “free radicals.” The free radicals
react with the food to create new chemical substances called “radiolytic
products.” The radiolytic products unique to the irradiation process are
called “unique radiolytic products” (URPs). Some radiolytic products, such
as formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid, and quinones are harmful to human
health. Benzene is a known carcinogen. Some URPs are completely new chemicals
that have not been identified, let alone tested for toxicity. URPs were
somehow given a blanket exemption by the FDA from the safety testing required
of other food additives.

Although the
FDA says irradiation doesn’t change nutritional content, the process does
destroy nutrients essential to human health, such as vitamins C, E, K, and
B-complex. (For example, vitamin E levels can be reduced by 25 percent after
irradiation and vitamin C by 5-10 percent. Irradiation is ineffective against
viruses.)

Radiation doses
at the levels recommended will not kill all microorganisms. Typically 90
percent may be destroyed and this means that the food still has be treated
with care otherwise the remaining organisms will reproduce rapidly. While the
government and meat industry claim the flavor and aroma of the treated meats
doesn’t change, taste testers have disagreed.

Food Editor for
the New York Times, Marian Burrows, writes, “Well-cooked conventional
meat still tastes better. A blind tasting of irradiated and conventional
ground beef, as well as steaks, pork loin and chicken makes it clear that the
meat industry has its work cut out for it. …all the irradiated meat smelled
funny, especially the ground beef…barnyard odor…like steamed cow” (New
York Times
, December 10, 1997).

Foods already
approved for irradiation include beef, pork, poultry, nuts, potatoes, wheat,
wheat flour, fruits, and vegetables, as well as all teas, and 60 dried herbs
and spices. The nuclear industry also irradiates medical equipment, food
containers, cosmetics, tampons, adhesive bandages, and cleaning solutions for
contact lenses. A short chronology of the approval process looks like this:

  • In 1953, food irradiation
    was named part of the so-called “atoms for peace” programs and the
    Army began research. In 1958 irradiation was classified as a food
    additive, requiring safety testing.
  • In 1963, the FDA approved
    irradiation for bacon, but later banned it, having learned of
    “deficiencies” in the Army’s research data on which the FDA had
    based its approval (Ms Magazine, November 1985).
  • The FDA, in 1968,
    re-approved the use of irradiation for bacon, for killing insects in wheat
    and wheat flour, and for the inhibition of sprouting in potatoes.
  • In 1983, the FDA approved
    sterilization of spices with irradiation. Low-dose irradiation can also be
    used to inhibit sprouting of onions, garlic, and ginger, and to inhibit
    the ripening of bananas, avocados, mangoes, papayas, and guavas. Hawaii is
    being pushed hard to open large irradiators for treating these tropical
    fruits.
  • In 1996, the FDA gave
    permission for the expanded use of irradiation in the U.S. food supply.
  • 1997 saw FDA approval of
    irradiation for beef, and other red meats such as lamb (MLWK Journal
    and St. Paul Pioneer, December 3, 1997).

Hide the
Label, They Will Buy

In
1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed rules and regulations
for labeling the food and for licensing the factories that may do the
irradiating. The rule-making process brought to light a horrifying series of
accidents and contamination.

The meat
industry lobbied vigorously for the 1997 bill on irradiation as an alternative
to Clinton administration proposals for greater government authority to recall
contaminated meat and punish violators. This is why professional critics of
the process are so alarmed.

Former
Assistant Secretary of Agriculture Carol Tucker Forman writes that irradiation
sterilizes dirty meat, “but it doesn’t keep meat from being recontaminated.
Every time the meat is handled, from packing plant to grocery store to a home
stove, it can come into contact with disease-causing bacteria. The meat might
pass through a contaminated grinder, or it could be mixed with scraps that
have been sitting in the store for a while” (New York Times, December
5, 1997).

Michael
Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest
opposes irradiation and writes that irradiated food “will cost more, contain
slightly reduced levels of B vitamins, endanger workers, and risk
environmental contamination” (letters, NYT, December 8, 1997).

The 1997 bill
also changed labeling requirements for all foods treated with irradiation, so
that the words: “Treated with Irradiation,” need be no larger than those
of the ingredient list.

However, the
FDA requires no labeling of irradiated ingredients, so potato soup made with
irradiated potatoes, onions, and spices need not be so labeled. Today, the
industry is lobbying hard to eliminate all labeling requirements for
irradiated foods.

An illustrative
parallel is found in the use of GMOs (genetically modified organisms). In
Europe, foods containing GMOs require labeling. This may explain why Europeans
are more educated on the subject and why the European Union banned the import
of U.S. GMOs. However, in the U.S.where no labeling of GMOs is required nearly
65 percent of foods on supermarket shelves contain ingredients that are
genetically modified.

FDA Approval
No Guarantee of Safety

FDA
troubles with prescription drugs don’t inspire confidence in its “okay”
for irradiation. After 80 deaths were attributed to the heartburn medicine
Propulsid, the FDA is considering a severe restriction and the manufacturer
has withdrawn it. The action came on the heels of the Rzulin scare. FDA
ordered it off the market after it was linked to 63 deaths.

There has been
no study of the effects of a long-term diet of irradiated foods. The FDA
reviewed 441 toxicity studies to determine the safety of irradiated foods. The
team leader in charge of the review testified that all 441 studies were
flawed. In fact, the FDA now claims that only 6 of the 441 were “properly
conducted, fully adequate by 1980 standards, and able to stand alone in
support of safety.”

One of these
six showed a statistically significant increase in stillbirth rates among rats
fed irradiated wheat. Another reported unexplained deaths and abnormalities in
animals given irradiated food, not reaching statistical significance because
of the small number of animals in the study. Both studies used irradiation
levels well below the proposed levels for human food. Dr. Bertell concludes:
“Thus the ‘scientific’ evidence in support of food irradiation consists
of studies with low irradiation dose, small number of animals, short follow-up
times, and negative results. No real scientist would accept these studies as
establishing the safety of irradiated foods.”

With this
shabby hobbled-together assurance of just five studies, the FDA approved
irradiation for the public food supply.

Food caterers,
restaurants, retirement homes, childcare centers, hospitals and schools are
not required to inform clients that their foods are irradiated (Minneapolis Star
Tribune
, December 16, 1999).

A Nasty
Business with a Bad Record

The
facilities that irradiate foods and equipment have caused accidents that must
not be repeated. The NRC has recorded 54 accidents at 132 irradiation
facilities worldwide since 1974. Unhappily, expanding irradiation will
increase the number of radiation accidents by increasing the handling and
high-speed transportation of radioactive “source” materials on railroads
and highways. It will expose factory surroundings and industry workers to
radioactive spills and leaks. Indeed irradiation’s “Three Mile Island”
has already happened.

In Decatur,
Georgia, Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. (RSI) got 252 21-inch canisters of
cesium-137 (which were never designed for use at an irradiation facility) from
the Department of Energy. In 1988 RSI began using the cesium-137 to irradiate
spices. After only two years, a cesium-137 capsule began leaking into the
storage pool. It took federal officials six months to find the leak’s
source. Contaminated workers took the poison home with them. In 1992, the
contaminated building was abandoned, and RSI took the word “radiation” out
of its name. Now they’re “Sterigenics” (Food & Water Journal,
Spring, 1998).

Neither the FDA
nor the nuclear industry has demonstrated an ability to safeguard the public
from its deadly man-made radiation. Without a guarantee of start-to-finish
safety, from the handing of radioactive source materials to the long-term
consumption of irradiated foods, irradiation should be prohibited.

The priorities
for governments and their food inspectors should be: (1) improving food
harvesting, storage and manufacturing processes; and (2) on eliminating or
containing the contamination that has found its way into the food chain.

John M.
Laforge is co-director of Nukewatch (P.O. Box 649, Luck, WI 54853), an
anti-war group based in Wisconsin, and editor of its quarterly newsletter The
Pathfinder. His articles on nuclear power and militarism have appeared in Z
Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Progressive, Minneapolis Star Tribune, The
Nonviolent Activist and Sociological Imagination.