Just over two weeks ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved the
irradiation of red meat to destroy deadly bacteria such as e-coli.
Proponents of the move say that for a few cents more, a pound of hamburger
or sausage can be zapped with radiation that kills harmful bacteria by
altering their genetic makeup. Some critics say that it should only be used
as a last resort, when food cannot be cleaned up any other way, because
consumers don't want to eat "sterilized filth."
One of the nation's leading critics of food irradiation, Michael Colby,
director of the advocacy group Food & Water in Walden, Vt., believes that it should not be
used in any case. Salon spoke with Colby about whether irradiation makes food safer -- or creates new health risks, especially to children.
What is your concern about irradiated red meat?
Food & Water is opposed to the irradiation of all food products on the
basis of the health concerns, environmental impact and nuclear
proliferation surrounding this technology. The health issue is potentially
quite serious. When you expose food to the equivalent of 10 million to 70 million
chest X-rays ...
Seventy million? Did I hear you correctly?
Yes, I'm giving you an equivalency in terms of radiation: 70 million. Irradiating food is not like exposing it to the volume of radiation in an airport luggage scanner or a regular
X-ray. It is equivalent to 10 million to 70 million chest
X-rays. Ten million -- which
is 100,000 "rads," the unit that radiation is measured in -- is what's approved for fruit and vegetables, and up to 70 million range is the approved dose for frozen meat products,
which is 700,000 rads. And a chest X-ray is .01 rad.
The irradiation is on foodstuffs though, not our bodies. And hasn't
irradiation been approved for chicken since 1990 and on fruits, vegetables
and spices since 1986? (The government requires that irradiated foods be clearly labeled.)
First of all, food irradiation has never been proven safe. There are no long-term, multi-generational studies. So the meat industry and the government have
completely neglected their responsibility of proving its safety.
I gather you're concerned, especially for children, about irradiated foods
containing radiolytic compounds. What are they?
When you expose food to radiation, you create radiolytic products, which
are products that result from the process of irradiation. For example, when you expose red meat to irradiation at the approved doses, you create benzene in the meat. Benzene is a very, very potent
carcinogen. The government is spending tens of millions of dollars to try
to get it out of the vapors of gasoline, and now we're putting it in the
red meat supply. If there's one molecule of benzene created in the red meat
and that molecule gets into the human body, that's enough to cause cancer.
It's not enough to argue that it's only a small amount, so don't worry about it. I
say look at the cancer rate in this country -- I think we've had enough of
the public policy that says, "It's only a small carcinogenic insult so don't
worry about it."
So what about the impact on children?
In fact, one of the only studies on human beings that exists was done
on children in India who were fed irradiated wheat. The researchers found that
children who were fed stored and freshly irradiated wheat developed
chromosomal abnormalities in their blood known as "polyploidy." Many
scientists believe that polyploidy is a precursor to leukemia and other
forms of cancer. The study was done in 1976 and published in the American
Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
But isn't it being accepted as the only way to make food safer?
It's an unnecessary technology -- we know how to decrease levels of e-coli without taking on the risks of added carcinogens and a
reduced vitamin and mineral content. Let's
address the causes of what allows these microorganisms to flourish.
Exposing dirty food to nuclear waste is not somehow going to make it safe.
How much is the vitamin content of food changed by irradiation?
It depends on the food. It can be as high as 60 percent, depending on the food
and the dose. Radiation-sensitive vitamins are vitamin C, D, E, K and A.
Do you have other concerns apart from irradiation causing carcinogens?
The primary concern is the introduction of new chemicals, some of which
are known to be carcinogenic. Another is the depletion of nutrients and
vitamins. Another is the environmental implications. If this is truly going
to be the solution to a contaminated industrial food supply, we're going to
need a nuclear infrastructure in this country of at least 500 to 750 new
When the FDA approved this, many scientists were quoted in the press saying this technology is safe. How do you account for that?
Well, the coverage has been unconscionable.
But what might the scientists be basing that view on?
They're no doubt basing it on risk assessment and a backward form of
thinking in terms of problem-solving, which is: Grab the latest gimmick
rather than trying to look at causes and speak about prevention. The
coverage of this issue has been so shallow. You don't hear anything about
nuclear accidents that have happened at the food irradiation facilities in
this country; or about carcinogenic properties, which are known; or about why we're allowing the causes -- not least of which
are the meat monopolies that control the meat industry -- to flourish. Why do
five food corporations control 92 percent of the meat industry? That's a problem,
particularly when they're vertically integrated -- when they control the
factory farms, the filthy slaughtering and processing facilities, the wholesaling -- and they're concerned primarily with profit, not safety.
Don't other nations use irradiation? The World Health Organization
has generally approved the procedure, as has the American Medical
It's approved in 40 countries, but it's used very, very sparingly. Just like
here, it's been approved since 1986, but very few foods are actually
irradiated. In fact, the world's leader for irradiated food, probably
responsible for 90 percent of irradiated food, is China. The other major leader is
the former Soviet Union. There's kind of a shell-game going on worldwide
in which Europe and Asia say the U.S. is eating the stuff up and
we're falling behind, and the U.S. says, Asia is using it, and we're falling
behind. There's no truth in that. We've done surveys in the major countries
that have approval and found they're a lot like the U.S. -- they have approved a
lot of uses for it, but they're not using it.
Is that mostly because consumers just don't buy it?
Yes, there's enormous citizen opposition to the idea of exposing food
products that we require for health and well-being to nuclear waste
Then what did the FDA base its approval on?
At one point in the 1980s, over half of the drugs the FDA had approved were
eventually recalled, in some cases because the agency realized
that the drugs caused more problems than they cured. The FDA approved
breast implants. The FDA and other federal agencies approved DDT in the
past. To say that the FDA has approved it doesn't really mean a lot.
One, the people at the FDA are human beings, so they're fallible. Two, it's a
political agency. The head of the FDA and many of its top deputies are
political appointees, not scientists.
I encourage the American people to look at the data that the FDA based
its approvals on, and talk to scientists-epidemiologists, toxicologists or
cancer researchers who have looked at the data and are beside themselves
over the approval, namely the head of the FDA's own food irradiation panel
in the 1980s, Dr. Marcia Van Gemert. She's a toxicologist and was the head
of the committee that looked at hundreds of FDA studies on irradiated foods in the 1980s. In 1993, she
came out with a statement saying that
the studies were inadequate to evaluate the toxicity of irradiated foods.
Or talk to Dr. Donald Louria, head of the Department of Preventive
Medicine at the New Jersey Medical School in Newark, N.J., who looked at
the same FDA studies. In some of the studies, he saw nutritional problems, still births,
tumors, methodology that was borderline fraudulent by including
nutritional supplements in the diets of animals fed irradiated food, supposedly to offset nutritional inadequacies. There were all kinds of
things going wrong that were basically ignored by the FDA. This isn't
just Michael Colby saying this. This isn't just any health food advocate.
These are scientists who have studied the data that this approval is based on and found it flawed.