Health Panel Urges Schools, Parents to Approve Irradiated Meat for School Lunches

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On May 29, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released specifications for purchase of irradiated ground beef for use in school lunches, though the decision to order irradiated beef will be made by local school districts. The American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), a consortium of more than 350 physicians and scientists, urges local school boards and parents to familiarize themselves with the safety benefits of the irradiated ground beef that is now available for the National School Lunch Program.

Irradiation of red meat was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) late in 1997, the USDA established rules for its use in 1999, and food processors have been slowly adopting the process. Recently, a number of large supermarkets, fast food outlets, and direct mail meat suppliers have begun offering their customers the choice of irradiated, and therefore safer, beef.

The use of irradiation on foods served in the school lunch program is especially appropriate because young children are among the groups that are particularly susceptible to serious consequences from consuming E. coli-contaminated foods. Therefore, parents should be relieved to learn that this technology will now be available for their children's protection.

Opponents of irradiation have repeatedly tried to arouse public fears, both of the process itself and of irradiation facilities, but their claims are without merit. Irradiation does not significantly affect the nutritional value of the foods treated, nor does it make food radioactive.

Additionally, more than 40 irradiation facilities currently operate safely in towns and cities across the United States. In these plants radiation is used to sterilize products ranging from baby-bottle nipples and cream containers to scalpels and surgical gloves. The safety record of the industry is excellent.

According to ACSH Director of Nutrition Dr. Ruth Kava, "Some groups urge consumers to avoid irradiated foods because of purely hypothetical concerns about the process. We think that consumers should embrace the process because of its proven ability to improve food safety."

Irradiation has been approved by both the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the United States, the American Medical Association, the American Dietetic Association, and the Institute of Food Technologists, as well as ACSH, endorse the use of irradiation to supplement the other methods currently used to safeguard our food supply.

Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, ACSH president stated that, "It is now up to parents and local school boards to educate themselves about food irradiation. When they do they will likely want the process used to enhance the safety of ground beef served to their children."

For more science-based information about irradiation of foods, please see ACSH's recently updated booklet, Irradiated Foods.