Irradiate Meat

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For some reason, Marion Burros of the New York Times seems to have it in for food irradiation. In an article published in the Times on January 29 ("The Question of Irradiated Beef in Lunchrooms"), Ms. Burros and some authorities she quotes mislead readers about the proposed irradiation of beef used in school lunch programs.

Contrary to her opinion, food irradiation has indeed been quite widely tested over the past five decades. These tests included feeding studies, across multiple generations, of several species of animals with diets composed mostly or solely of irradiated foods. While such animal tests are not directly applicable to human health, the animals involved in these studies grew and reproduced normally, indicating that any chemicals formed during irradiation did no damage. We have also been feeding irradiated foods to our astronauts for decades, with no evidence of ill effects.

We have extensive evidence, however, that feeding children hamburger contaminated with bacteria like E. coli O157:H7 can definitely cause serious illness, even death. Irradiation of ground meat is one proven method to protect us from real food-related illness.

Parents should have a choice about what their children eat, but the article cited above is wrong to suggest that this would not be the case if beef were irradiated. Irradiated beef would be labeled as such, and school lunch menus are usually sent to parents so that they can see what will be served a month ahead of time. So, if parents wanted to have their children avoid irradiated meats they could note on which days hamburger (or meatloaf) would be served, and make other arrangements for those days.

Parents, like all consumers, should be able to choose to use or avoid irradiated foods. But let's be sure they have a fully-informed choice rather than a lot of vague warnings about hypothetical ill-effects that have never been shown to occur and which, based on decades of research, are highly unlikely.

(For more, see ACSH's booklet on food irradiation.)

Ruth Kava, Ph.D., R.D., is the Director of Nutrition of the American Council on Science and Health.

Responses:

April 2, 2004

The problem is that the parents are not specifically informed about the children's school lunches. I have never seen breakdowns of types of breads, types of sweeteners, origin of foods, nor methods used to prepare or process foods at schools.

Furthermore, many people are opposed to irradiated meat because it was a cop-out. Rather than force the meat industry to clean up the unsanitary processes in their plants and the USDA's inept inspection standards, they decided to expose certain meats to gamma rays to kill potentially deadly bacteria. Therefore, meat still may have fecal matter in it; it's just dead fecal matter.

Who knows at this stage of food science what else is killed in the process that is actually good for us like enzymes. Is the same thing going to happen with meat that happened with fruit juices? At one time you could get real, fresh-squeezed juice. Nowadays, because of overexposure to bacteria, herbicides, fungicides, and other contaminants, the only fresh juice you can find is that which you squeeze yourself.

Michael Edwards, MA, CHES