Food for Thought: Irradiation Is Dangerous, Group Insists

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Dec. 25, 2000 (Washington) -- Most Americans have largely ignored the government's recent decision to allow the irradiation of juice. After all, the government has now endorsed the irradiation of everything from sprouting seeds to meat. But if one prominent citizen group gets it way, this relatively noncontroversial decision could become one of the hot buttons of the upcoming year.

Public Citizen, the group founded by consumer activist and recent presidential hopeful Ralph Nader, says it has uncovered evidence proving that the FDA endorsed the irradiation of juice along with other foods based upon research the agency's own experts term "inadequate." The group is now calling for a public hearing to look at the evidence.

"For 17 years, the FDA has knowingly and systematically ignored its own testing protocols -- protocols that must be followed before irradiated foods can be legalized for human consumption," says Mark Worth, a senior researcher at Public Citizen.

Similar to the process used to sterilize medical equipment, the irradiation of food involves exposing it to a radioactive substance, such as cobalt or cesium, in order to eliminate disease-causing germs. The radioactive substances emit gamma rays that, in turn, create temporary chemicals within the food that can eliminate living germs.

According to the citizen watchdog group, the majority of studies conducted have determined this process is unsafe. Further studies must now be conducted to determine the full potential impact on human health, the group says. But under pressure by the military and the food processing industry, the FDA has ignored this need in its mad rush to approve the process, the group claims.

Efforts to approve the irradiation of food began with the military in the mid-1960s as a means of disposing of radioactive waste rather than a means to protect human health. Since then, Worth says, food processors have joined the military in promoting the irradiation of food because the process helps disguise commercial food makers' unsanitary practices.

While helping eliminate germs and extending the shelf life of food, the irradiation of food can lead to several harmful effects, agrees Samuel Epstein, MD, chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and professor of medicine at the University of Illinois Medical Center in Chicago. "At the very least, we have strong evidence demonstrating a significant loss of nutrients and an increase in the risk of genetic hazards and cancer," Epstein says.

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According to Epstein, these hazards have been substantiated in numerous animal studies, including a 1968 military study in which lab animals fed irradiated food suffered from premature death, cancer, and reproductive problems. Irradiation leads to the breakdown of numerous chemical bonds in the food, which creates a number of unknown chemicals and other toxic hazards, Epstein explains.

The FDA does not comment on pending petitions, but supporters of irradiation maintain that these "orchestrated attacks" are misguided and potentially dangerous. They say that food irradiation is a necessary component of food safety. While not a "cure-all," irradiation is a particularly important development for vulnerable populations such as the elderly and children, who are especially susceptible to food-borne germs, they say.

Food-borne organisms such as E. coli,Salmonella,and Campylobacter cause millions of infections and thousands of hospitalizations each year, observes Rhona Applebaum, PhD, executive vice president of the National Food Processors Association. "Irradiation is another tool for dealing with these emerging pathogens. Irradiation is no way, shape, or form a way to bypass good food producing practices," she tells WebMD.

This debate could lead to history repeating itself, according to the Grocery Manufacturers of America, an association of food and beverage makers. "Acceptance of pasteurization was long delayed because of fear mongering and misinformation," notes Lisa Katic, director of science and nutrition policy at GMA and a registered dietitian. "We should not let that happen with food irradiation."

Scientific bodies from across the world have confirmed the benefits and safety of food irradiation, says Lester Crawford, PhD, director of the Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy in Washington. A former administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, Crawford says, "You can't erase decades of scientific substantiation."

The American Medical Association, CDC, as well as the World Health Organization also have endorsed the process. Together, they deny that the irradiation of food has been linked to either cancer or reproductive problems. Food irradiation is in fact just the next logical step toward reducing the incidence of food-borne disease in the U.S., the CDC says.

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But Public Citizen's protest may still have an unexpected impact. Unable to get food irradiation banned on the federal level, Public Citizen will at least attempt to ensure that this food is properly labeled, says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Mass Energy and Environment Program. Public Citizen also will work toward getting irradiation banned on the local level, she says.

That could spell a problem for supporters of this process. The test marketing of specific food items has shown that consumers are willing to purchase irradiated foods, but consumer acceptance could lessen if the technology is represented in a bad light, Applebaum concedes. If the group succeeds in just getting an "irradiated" label on these products, it could mean trouble, she tells WebMD.

As for consumers that do not wish to purchase irradiated food, "let them buy organic food products," Applebaum says. The irradiation of foods will still take place regardless of the label, she points out. "If they clearly don't want irradiation, I think that's fine. But that doesn't justify distorting science," she says.

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