Nuking Food For Profit


deep within the bowels of the recently passed 2002 Farm Bill—unbeknownst
to most consumers, farmers, and taxpayers—was Section 1079E,
granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the power to
approve any technology capable of killing pathogens as a form of
“pasteurization.” Corporate agribusiness has been drooling
for years over just such a redefinition in order to circumvent pesky
consumer warning labels and sidestep clean-up of filthy factory
farm conditions. Another insidious provision buried in the 2002
Farm Bill Section 442 goes even further, forbidding the U.S. Department
of Agriculture (USDA) from restricting distribution of irradiated
foods through mandated national school lunch and child nutrition
programs. Behind both ideas was Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who enjoyed
eating irradiated pork as a Navy fighter pilot back in the 1960s
and even helped cut the ribbon at a state-of-the-art food irradiation
plant in Sioux City. Now that they have their foot in the door of
the nation’s entire food supply, the corporate food irradiators
are off and running.

this summer, test marketing of irradiated burgers began at several
Dairy Queen restaurants in Minnesota. Schwan’s is now delivering
irradiated meat to people’s doorsteps along with their popular
ice cream, while the Pick ’n Save grocery chain has proposed
irradiation to its customers throughout the Midwest. In the Chicago
area one can enjoy irradiated tropical fruit from Hawaii at Carrot
Top supermarkets. Much of this nuked food comes courtesy of Sure-Beam,
a recent spinoff of defense contractor, Titan Corporation. Sure-Beam’s
glossy carefree brochure claims that irradiated food keeps NASA
astronauts healthy and that its electron beams use exactly the same
electricity as a microwave oven or a television set. While consumer
acceptance of irradiated hamburger has been lukewarm at best (the
horrid “steamed cow” taste may be partly to blame…),
Sure Beam is not worried since—as reported in the

New York

—it will probably be able to dump whatever mystery
meat remains at taxpayer expense onto children’s school lunch

is hardly the first time children have been fed irradiated food
against their will. In 1997 a class action lawsuit was settled out
of court for $1.85 million involving Quaker Oats and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology (MIT). More than 100 boys who were wards
of the state and housed at the Fernald School in Waltham, Massachusetts
throughout the 1940s and 1950s were unwitting guinea pigs in nutritional
experiments involving cereal laced with radioactive iron and calcium.
According to the plaintiffs, the children were lured into the secret
tests on joining the Fernald Science Club, their parents signing
consent forms that said nothing about radioactive exposure. Of course,
this latest nationwide nuclear fieldtrial will have no waiver either,
since eating nuked food is now USDA approved.

irradiated foods sold in grocery stores are currently required to
bear the “radura” irradiation symbol, which looks more
like a harmless green flower in a broken circle (strikingly similar
to the logo of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) and can
be as small as your fingernail. No consumer warning label, though,
is required for irradiated ingredients mixed into other items—such
as baby food, frozen lasagna, canned soup, and fruit juice—or
for entrees served in restaurants, hospitals, and schools. Consumer
right to know has been thrown out the window and a $10 million anti-label
PR blitz by the nuclear industry aims to keep it that way. Many
people are already eating irradiated foods on a daily basis without
their consent or even awareness. Other consumer products, such as
tampons, band aids, cosmetics, straws, and cleaning solutions for
contact lenses, have also been given the “green light”
for irradiation treatment.

drive towards zapping everything we consume with ionizing radiation
is actually part of a larger corporate campaign to shift food production
to the global South. USDA officials have argued that irradiation
is “absolutely necessary” for global food trade since
it facilitates long distance transport. Irradiation does extend
the shelf-life of produce by killing pathogens and other pests and
even masking the contamination and putrefication of meat. If one
can kill off the bacteria responsible for that “awful stench,”
people won’t recognize botulism anymore. Western governments
have also been quite eager to put taxpayer money where their corporate
mouth is through foreign aid technology transfer. For instance,
in 1987 the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) earmarked
$4.8 million towards construction of a food irradiation plant in
Thailand to zap shrimp, mangoes, and papayas destined for the global
food market. Anticipating this trend, Brazil has become the kingpin
of food irradiation with 11 operating ionization plants and another
21 under construction. Irradiated food is already available in 33
countries—everything from flour to beans.

powerful cheerleader for food irradiation is the nuclear industry,
ever eager to find lucrative civilian applications for its military
handiwork. Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program first proposed
using radioactive isotopes for food safety back in the 1950s. In
the 1970s it was the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that was plugging
food irradiation under its Byproduct Utilization Program. By 1980
an “expert committee,” convened by the World Health Organization
(WHO), the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), and—surprise,
surprise—the corporate-dominated International Atomic Energy
Agency (IAEA) gave its unequivocal blessing to food irradiation.
As early as 1986 the FDA had approved irradiation for spices, fruits,
and vegetables and this was extended to poultry by 1990. In 1997
the FDA also approved irradiation of red meat, after receiving a
petition from Isomedix, a New Jersey-based firm that already operated
16 facilities for irradiating medical equipment and empty food containers.

food irradiation uses cobalt 60 and cesium 137—both nuclear
waste byproducts—to generate high energy gamma rays. In a typical
facility a human operator moves aluminum food racks into a chamber
with six foot thick walls and then exposes the target to a rack
of “pencils” lifted out of a water pool. The inherent
dangers of such a process should be patently obvious. To give but
one example, in 1988 Radiation Sterilizers Inc. (RSI) in Dekalb,
Georgia received a shipment of 252 “hand me down” cesium
137 canisters from the U.S. Dept of Energy (DOE) for irradiation
of spices. Within two years one of the canisters was leaking into
the storage pool, workers were exposed—tracking radioactive
water into their cars and homes—and by 1992 the facility was
so contaminated it had to be abandoned, leaving taxpayers with a
$47 million clean-up bill.

more recent food irradiation tactic uses an “e beam” from
a particle accelerator, but this only penetrates food up to an inch
and a half and larger/thicker food items (like steak) often require
extra—and more expensive—x-rays. Titan Corporation, which
came up with the “e beam” idea from its ongoing Star Wars
research, receives a whopping 80 percent of its revenue from U.S.
taxpayers through DOE and the Pentagon. Like many public schools,
the University of Wisconsin, currently conducting Star Wars research
involving creation of hypernetic DNA-based computers, holds $53,000
worth of Titan stock in its Trust Fund, and is most likely serving
irradiated food to students, staff, and faculty through its various
corporate-supplied cafeterias.

number of microbes that are killed by a radiation dose depends entirely
on the time and length of exposure—with 100 percent mortality
rarely achieved. Irradiation, like chlorine, does not necessarily
destroy spores, cysts, viruses, prions, or other naturally resistant
pathogens. It also does not physically remove the manure, urine,
pus, vomit, toxins, tumors, and other waste on food, nor can it
prevent future contamination from dirty utensils, cutting surfaces,
unwashed hands, etc. Of course, the “collateral damage”
to “nontarget organisms” is already painfully apparent,
as witnessed by the health impact on government workers in DC forced
to handle irradiated mail in the wake of the post 9/11 anthrax attacks.
Media reports indicate that over 100 U.S. Postal Service employees
and over 250 Congressional and Executive Branch staffers have suffered
a wide variety of irradiation symptoms, from bloody noses and chronic
headaches to skin lesions and tingling sensations.

normal cooking, when food is nuked numerous chemical bonds are ruptured,
leaving behind a trail of free radicals, ions, and other radiolytic
byproducts. Some of these compounds are already known to be dangerous
to human health when ingested, such as formaldehyde, octane, formic
acid, butane, methyl propane, and benzene. Others are only identified
as “unique radiolytic products” (URPs)— cyclobutanones
such as 2-DCB being an example—and these are not found naturally
anywhere on earth except in irradiated foodstuffs. There has been
no federal safety testing and little scientific investigation of
URPs. They are known to persist for up to a decade in food and some
experts fear that is long enough to trigger cancers and birth defects.

also destroys a whole array of vitamins, enzymes, healthy bacteria,
essential fatty acids, and other nutritional elements found naturally
in whole foods. The free radicals produced by irradiation are really
“thug chemicals,” rupturing cell membranes, mutating others,
and destroying vitamins. For instance, up to 91 percent of vitamin
B6 in beef, 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs, 50 percent of vitamin
A in carrot juice, 37 percent of vitamin B1 in oats, and 30 percent
of vitamin C in potatoes is lost with irradiation. Corporate agribusiness
is quick to counter that processing and cooking also destroy vitamins,
but do we really want to accelerate this downward spiral in nutritional
value? Needless to say, the food giants have a vested interest in
fortifying the same foods they degrade and marketing nutritional
supplements. An estimated 40 percent of people in the U.S. already
pop vitamins pills. Surveys have shown that irradiation reduces
and distorts flavor, too—even IBP, one of the nation’s
biggest meatpackers, had serious concerns about the fact that irradiation
“noticeably” altered the color and taste of meat (

York Times).

agribusiness giants like Smithfield, Cargill/Excel, and Conagra,
though, irradiation is the “silver bullet” that will let
them avoid costly meat recalls and avoid any clean-up of rampant
contamination in factory farming. If one reads recent exposes—such
as Gail Eisnitz’s


one is hard put
to find much progress in today’s meat packing industry. In
fact, many experts argue that modern livestock and meatpacking practices
actually make disease problems worse. For example, A recent Cornell
University study revealed that force feeding cows grain rations
in feedlots prior to slaughter—versus natural green fodder
on pasture—increases E. coli contamination by up to 300 percent.
Another common agribusiness practice of dunking chicken carcasses
into the “fecal soup” of chill tanks to increase their
store weight with added water prior to shipment to retailers almost
guarantees bacterial outbreaks. Just a month before Thanksgiving,
Pilgrim’s Pride recalled 27.5 million pounds of ready-to-eat
chicken and turkey products because of Listeria contamination that
had already killed 7 people in 7 states (

New York Times).

antibiotic use is another contributing factor. Over 80 percent of
the antibiotics currently used in U.S. agriculture are for non-essential
purposes—such as medicated feed that stimulates animal growth.
A 50 percent increase in mastitis (udder infection) rates from injection
of recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH) also means more, often
illegal, antibiotic use that turns up as residues in both milk,
meat, and our water supply, thanks to manure runoff from factory
farms. The result has been an alarming upshot in strains of resistant
bacteria now wreaking havoc in our nation’s hospital wards.
Irradiation exposure will only accelerates the evolution of more
“super germs,” which is why some of the staunchest opponents
of irradiated foods (and subtherapeutic antibiotics) are biologists,
veterinarians, physicians, and nurses.

technically illegal in the wake of the Mad Cow outbreak in Europe,
many U.S. agribusiness operators continue to feed livestock the
remains of other animals, often in the form of processed blood/bone
meal, other rendered roadkill and livestock byproducts, as well
as milk protein concentrate (MPC), slipped into feed supplements.
This practice is especially tempting for factory dairy farm operators,
who need higher protein and calcium in their feeding regimen to
compensate for the unnatural milk volumes cranked out of cows on
rBGH. In some cases, entrails of slaughtered animals are served
back to others “stuck in the queue” at slaughterhouses.
Such widespread “cannibalism” easily spreads prions, viruses,
bacteria, and other pathogens between animals and across species.
The chronic wasting disease (CWD) now infecting Midwestern deer,
and potentially Midwestern hunters, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Advanced meat recovery and other techniques to extract every last
ounce of flesh from animal carcasses exacerbates this dangerous
trend since it means more bone marrow, nerves, cartilage, ligaments,
and spinal tissue in low-grade meat destined for fast food pizza,
hamburger, and taco outlets.

packing mergers and accelerated assembly lines are two other clear
factors behind the widespread contamination that irradiation is
meant to “solve.” One infected steer tossed into a corporate
hamburger grinder and then redistributed to grocery and restaurant
chains nationwide can easily kill scores of people in half a dozen
states. The deregulation and privatization of meat inspection under
the Clinton/Bush administrations has only made this grim scenario
worse. A recent expose by Public Citizen revealed that the USDA’s
new Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) meat sanitation
program was a food safety joke. For instance, the Cargil/Excel meatpacking
plant, responsible for an E. coli outbreak in Wisconsin that killed
one child and sickened 500 others, passed its first two HACCP checks
with flying colors, but then during the 15-month “holiday”
between mandated inspections received a whopping 26 citations for
fecal contamination with no regulatory action. A more recent memo
from the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS) leaked
to the press (

New York Time

s) redefined “contamination”
to mean “verifiable feces (with) a fibrous nature” and
went on to warn inspectors that they would be held personally responsible
for lost company profits stemming from “unjustifiable”
assembly line halts.

irradiation is a short-term “band aid” for a much more
systemic factory farm induced corporate food system malaise. Consumers
should not buy into the false sense of security offered by this
“high tech” quick fix nor should taxpayers tolerate subsidizing
it—whether through the Pentagon’s Star Wars program or
the USDA’s school lunch program. Grassroots efforts are now
underway to mandate genuine truth in labeling, build a consumer
boycott against all irradiated products, pressure school boards
and other elected officials to ban irradiated foodstuffs from public
institutions, and otherwise return this misguided technology to
the laboratory dustbin where it belongs. As Michael Hart, a British
farmer who visited Wisconsin on a speaking tour last summer wryly
noted, “I don’t want to eat shit—raw, cooked, or

E. Peck is a graduate student at UW-Madison, grew up on a 260-acre
farm in central Minnesota, and is currently executive director of
Family Farm Defenders.