Food Irradiation




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This page has three articles on food irradiation
Symposium on Food Irradiation

June 15, 2001 from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM


University of Illinois Chicago

College Of Pharmacy

833 S. Wood Street

Room 36 (Lower Level)

Featuring Informative Speakers:

  • Dr. Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.
    Emeritus Professor Environmental and Occupational Medicine, University of Illinois School of Public Health
  • Michelle Marcotte, Consultant, IBA
  • Dr. Donal Day, University of Virginia, Department of Physics
  • Dr. George Pauli, Director, Division of Product Policy, FDA Office of Premarket Approval
  • Peter Jenkins, J.D., Center for Food Safety
  • Dr. Donald Thayer, USDA, Agriculture Research Service
  • Dr. Vijayalaxmi, University of Texas Health Science Center
  • Jim Bernon, National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals
  • Dr. Robert Elder, USDA, Agriculture Research Service
  • U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (invited)
  • U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (invited)
  • Wenoah Hunter, Public Citizen
  • Dr. George Pauli, FDA

To register, call 312-670-2800

Sponsored by
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Health Sciences Institute e-Alert

February 4, 2003


Dear Reader,

If it walks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck. But then, you could always apply to the FDA to have the name "duck" changed to something more palatable, like "appealing fowl."

Last year the FDA announced that U.S. food companies planning to market irradiated beef may petition the agency to request the use of "neutral language" to describe their meat - something like "cold-pasteurized" rather than "irradiated" - a process that uses gamma rays or electrons to kill bacteria that cause food poisoning.

The fact that advocates of meat irradiation want to hide this process behind a brand new "feel good" name tells you everything you need to know about them: They seem to be far more concerned about public perception than they are about public safety.

This would be simply irritating if it weren't for the astonishing fact that plans are already underway to feed this highly suspect beef to 27 million American school children.

Warning signs ignored

In spite of being zapped with gamma rays or electrons, irradiated beef is not radioactive. And apparently the process is effective in killing bacteria like E. coli 0157:H7 and salmonella, both of which cause food poisoning. So what's the problem? Two things.

One: Studies in Europe have shown that irradiation may form cancer-causing agents in meat fat. The European Union has suspended the irradiation of beef and other foods (except for certain spices and herbs) until further studies have been completed.

Two: In a New York Times report last week, Carol Tucker Foreman (the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America) underlined the uncertain health risks of irradiation, saying, "There is nowhere in the world where a large population has eaten large amounts of irradiated food over a long period of time."

In short: We have good reason to suspect that irradiated meat may add up to serious health problems in the long run. But rather than rigorously test the process and make sure it's absolutely safe, Congress enacted a law last May directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow irradiation of beef purchased for the federal school lunch program - a program that offers free or inexpensive meals to 27 million kids every school day.

If you go to the grocery store and see a package of meat that is clearly labeled "irradiated," or "cold pasteurized," or "never mind what we do to it - just trust us," you have a choice. You can choose non-irradiated meat, or fish, or vegetables. But a child standing in a lunch line is not exactly a discriminating consumer. He's far more likely to quickly eat what's put on his plate and make a mad dash for the playground, never giving the slightest thought about how the meat has been processed.

More than bargained for

The whole point of irradiation is to create a shortcut. When beef has been irradiated, there's no need to test for bacterial contamination. This is a time and money saving bonus for meat companies. But critics of the plan fear that this new system will encourage meat processors to cut corners on safety where they never dared before, creating relaxed sanitation standards that could considerably compromise meat quality.

But what about nutrition? This would seem to be an obvious question, but in the several articles I've read about irradiated beef, the subject of nutrition doesn't come up at all. So I asked HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., for his take on the way irradiation might affect nutrition, and he sent me this comment:

"Any electromagnetic radiation strong enough to kill undesirable elements in food is easily strong enough to do the same thing to desirable elements. Denaturing of enzymes, destruction of desirable bacteria, elimination of vital nutrients are all events that will be proven to occur once we get someone to study them. Since nobody has yet, why are 'we' so fired up about using the unproven technique on kids? (Wouldn't have anything to do with revenue enhancement for the food industry, would it?) The whole thing strikes me as unwholesome, and at the very least extremely premature."

Dodging gamma rays

Obviously, anyone who doesn't like the idea of irradiated beef can avoid it at the supermarket (trusting, of course, that it's clearly labeled). Beef dishes ordered in restaurants present another problem. But there is something you can do if you have children or grandchildren who benefit from the federal school lunch program.

The distribution of irradiated beef to schools may start as early as the 2003-2004 school year. At that time, school districts will have the right to refuse irradiated meat. Check with your school administrators to find out if they plan to serve irradiated beef. Tell them about your concerns and encourage them to postpone a decision to use this process until substantial further testing has been done. This is also a perfect time to get the word out to other parents at PTA meetings. Let them know about the potential dangers that irradiated meat poses to the children in your community.

The federal school lunch program benefits the children of low-income households. In many cases, these kids have no other source for their lunch meal. In other words, turning down the meal is not an option. All children deserve a nutritious school lunch, but they also deserve a safer solution to ensuring meat safety.

When I was in grade school, we had a name for cafeteria meat dishes like Sloppy Joe sandwiches and chipped beef: we called it mystery meat. Little did we know back then just how genuinely mysterious meat might someday become.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

"The Question of Irradiated Beef in Lunchrooms" Marian
Burros, The New York Times, 1/29/03
"Parents Protest U.S. Schools Irradiated Meat Plan" Randy
Fabi, Reuters, 12/13/02
"FDA Allowing Food Companies To Change Irradiation Label
to 'Cold Pasteurization'" Reuters, 10/9/02

Copyright (c)1997-2003 by, L.L.C.
The e-Alert may not be posted on commercial sites without
written permission.

If you'd like to participate in the HSI Forum, search past
e-Alerts and products or you're an HSI member and would like
to search past articles, visit



Health Sciences Institute e-Alert

February 10, 2003


Dear Reader,

After sending you the e-Alert last week about irradiated beef ("Don't Beam Me Up" 2/4/03), I came across a news item announcing that a popular supermarket chain began selling irradiated ground beef on February 2nd in six mid-Atlantic states, including Maryland, where I live. These stores are among some 4,000 nationwide that currently sell irradiated beef.

This alone would be unsettling enough. But in response to that e-Alert, I received a reply from HSI Panelist Jon Barron with additional information about the irradiation process that I guarantee will make you think twice the next time you stop off at your grocery to buy meat products.

Who let the nutrients out?

To briefly recap: Irradiation is a process by which a food product is exposed to extremely high doses of radiation to kill bacteria, parasites and funguses that may cause spoilage or disease. And if that were all irradiation did, that would be fine. But as we'll see, there's much more to it than that.

Jon begins by describing the process in more detail: "Food is exposed to 'hard' irradiation, usually gamma rays from a source like cobalt-80, in doses of 100,000 to 3,000,000 rads. To give you a sense of how high a dose this is, understand that a dose of just 10,000 rads will totally destroy any living tissue."

As HSI Panelist Allan Spreen, M.D., made clear last week, an abundance of nutrients are also eliminated by this process. Jon agrees, and says, "as much as 70% of the Vitamin A, B1 and B2 in irradiated milk is destroyed, and about 30% of Vitamin C." Unfortunately, irradiation also accelerates the growth of aspergillus mold, "which produces the most potent natural carcinogens known to man, called aflatoxins."

I wish I could say that's the worst of it - but we're just getting started.

A radiotoxin by any other name...

Processing food with the extremely high levels of gamma rays described above results in the creation of some very dangerous molecules, about which Jon gives this interesting but frightening background: "They were originally called 'radiotoxins' by Russian researchers. Since that word would be frightening to American consumers, the FDA came up with a couple of 'softer' terms. They call them 'known radiolytic products' to describe the molecules that are created such as formaldehyde and benzene (known carcinogens), and as for those chemical molecules created by irradiation and that have never before been seen by man, the FDA came up with the equally soft 'unique radiolytic products.'"

Long before the FDA started assigning more palatable terms for these very unappetizing results, it had already reviewed more than 400 studies about the irradiation process. But Jon tells us where that review process fell woefully short: "They accepted 226 studies for further review. They then narrowed their criteria and selected only 69 for in-depth review. Of these, the FDA itself reported that 32 of the 69 showed adverse effects, and 37 showed safety problems. Then without explanation, they eliminated all but 5 of the 69 (including every negative study) and said they would base their decision on those 5 alone.

"In the FDA's final report approving food radiation, they wrote that when up to 35% of the lab-animal diet was radiated, feeding studies had to be terminated because of premature mortality or morbidity." And in one test at the Medical College of Virginia, rats fed irradiated beef "died of hemorrhagic syndrome in 34 days."

Running from the radura

According to Jon, "Foods already approved for irradiation include: fruits, vegetables, wheat, flour, herbs, spices, nuts, seeds, peas, pork, and chicken." And to that we can add ground beef - now in a supermarket in my neighborhood, and very likely in yours as well.

If you don't like the idea of irradiated food (and at this point I can't imagine how anyone possibly could), you can look for a symbol called the "radura" which is required on the packaging of irradiated foods. The radura is a green circle (broken into four segments at the top of the circle), enclosing a flower image represented by a large green dot with two petals below the dot.

But even if you avoid products marked with the radura, you're still not in the clear. As Jon explains, "The FDA requires a label stating a food has been radiated if, and only if, it was radiated as a 'whole food' and then is sold unchanged. But, if you process it in any way, if you add any other ingredients to it, it no longer requires a label stating that it (or any of its ingredients) were irradiated. To put it simply, an irradiated orange would require a label; irradiated orange juice would not."
An uncomfortable level of comfort 

But even if people see the radura on a package of ground beef, a bag of Brazil nuts, or a sticker on an apple - do they know what its significance is? And worse, do they have any idea of the risks? By and large, my guess is "no." In a report from Reuters last December, a survey conducted by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association found that almost half of Americans say they would feel comfortable purchasing irradiated meat. This response was 10 percent higher than it had been to the same question on a similar nationwide survey earlier in the year.

In other words, people are apparently becoming comfortable with the idea of irradiated food. And it seems they'll have ample opportunity to buy it. SureBeam Corporation (the largest provider of irradiation technology in the U.S.) plans to process more than 300 million pounds of beef this year. Last year they processed only 15 million pounds.

Feel free to forward this e-Alert to friends and relatives. Help us spread the word that this idea, whose time has apparently come, is not a good idea, although it looks like it's probably here to stay. So it may be the best that we can do to avoid irradiated foods by looking for the odd green flower.

My thanks to Jon Barron for his exhaustive profile of this subject. Jon has researched and written extensively about alternative medicine, nutrition, and herbal remedies for almost thirty years. For more information about Jon and his work, visit his web site at

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

"U.S. Food Industry Begins to Embrace Irradiation" Jerry Bieszk, Reuters, 2/5/03
"Weis to Sell Irradiated Beef Through Pact With SureBeam" Dow Jones Business News, 1/29/03
"Parents Protest U.S. Schools Irradiated Meat Plan" Randy Fabi, Reuters, 12/13/02
"FDA Allowing Food Companies To Change Irradiation Label to 'Cold Pasteurization'" Reuters, 10/9/02

Copyright (c)1997-2003 by, L.L.C.
The e-Alert may not be posted on commercial sites without written permission.

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