Irradiation — A Winning Recipe for Wholesome Beef

By Michael Fumento

Priorities, 1994, volume 6, issue 2
Copyright 1994 American Council on Science and Health

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The American food supply, including beef, is as safe as any in the world. Yet, as the poisoning of hundreds of people and deaths of three children in the Pacific Northwest last year showed, it can be made safer. That’s why Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy has asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the use of irradiation on beef. But it won’t come to pass if activists get their way.

Irradiation uses gamma rays from either radioactive material or machines to kill bacteria and other organisms. Irradiated food is no more radioactive than your luggage is after it goes through the airport X-ray machine. The FDA has already approved irradiation on some other foods, including pork, chicken, herbs and spices, fresh fruits and vegetables and grains.

Activists fought the approval of those uses and have succeeded—through public agitation—in virtually denying consumers access to all but irradiated spices.

Instead of using irradiation to enhance food safety, opponents say the answer is increased government regulation, especially increasing the size of the government’s meat inspection force. It is understandable that this would be their solution, since they have inherent faith in the ability of government to correct all problems. This faith, however, keeps them from realizing that government inspection has had little to do with making the meat supply as safe as it is and can do little to make it safer.

The government employs only about 8,000 inspectors, including supervisors, for about 32 million head of slaughtered cattle annually. Furthermore, inspectors cannot see bacteria and other spoilage organisms. Today’s visual inspection procedures keep only obviously diseased meat from going to market. No microbiological tests currently exist that would make it practical to perform routine laboratory analysis on raw meat.

What does make food as safe as it is today is a market system in which making one’s customers ill guarantees lost profits and perhaps bankruptcy. Foodmaker Corp, whose Jack-in-the-Box restaurants sold most of the tainted meat during last year’s poisoning outbreak, reported a $44 million loss as a result, along with millions of dollars in lawsuits against its insurance carrier.

To avoid such disasters, meatpackers and vendors will use anything of reasonable cost. In the past this has involved the development of and adherence to proper handling and preparation guidelines. In the case of Jack in the Box, cooking meat to an internal temperature of 155 degrees Fahrenheit would have killed the harmful bacteria. Irradiation will give food producers another line of defense in preventing foodborne illness, and to prevent its use is to deny them a valuable tool in protecting public health.

"I’m much safer when irradiated!"

In condemning Espy’s support of beef irradiation, Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, declared, "While irradiation does kill bacteria, it involves the use of inherently dangerous materials and poses its own risks to workers, the environment and consumers."

Let’s examine these dangers and risks more carefully and weigh them against other risks we take every day, including the risk of other food preservation methods.

Dangerous materials?

Certainly the radioactive materials used in irradiation, cobalt 60 or cesium 137, can pose dangers to exposed persons. But any way you look at it, they’re far safer than the gasoline that powers our cars or the natural gas that heats our homes. Much of the alleged concern surrounds the transportation of these materials.

Shippers are concerned, too, which is why the radioactive material is transported in jackets comprised of two layers of welded stainless steel packed in lead caskets. While it hasn’t always been so carefully protected, radioactive material has nonetheless been transported for 40 years without incident.

Risks to workers?

Each year, over 10,000 U.S. workers in all occupations died from job-related accidents and 1,800,000 suffer disabling injuries on the job. They died in car factories, paper mills and bakeries. They died at plants that freeze food, can food and wrap food. They especially died growing and harvesting food. Farm residents have three times the death rate while on the job as do other workers.

While the approximately 40 plants in this country which irradiate either food or, more commonly, medical instruments, have had a handful of accidents, they have never had a fatality. Further, none of the accidents is known to have been related to food processing nor to have caused harm to anyone outside the plant.

Risk to the environment?

No accident at any irradiation plant has ever resulted in radiation leakage. No radioactive material has ever been released during transport. In addition, it should warm the heart of any environmentalist bemoaning the heavy use of energy and emission of chlorofluorcarbons (accused of depleting the ozone layer) that refrigeration entails, that meat which has been irradiated and hermetically sealed can be stored more or less indefinitely at room temperature.

A Long Safety Record

Thirty-seven countries world-wide have approved food irradiation. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization, both gave their approval long ago for irradiating food. A 1981 WHO document states: "All the toxicological studies carried out on a large number of irradiated foods, from almost every type of food commodity, have produced no evidence of adverse effects as a result of irradiation."

Yet because of so much negative publicity, consumers remain skeptical. The American public easily accepts more traditional methods of foods preservation and preparation, such as canning, salting and curing. And today in the U.S. such assumptions about safety are justified.

Here, there is no epidemiological evidence linking increased consumption of processed foods with any types of cancer. Esophageal cancer is rare, and the death rate from stomach cancer has been declining steadily for more than half a century. However, in other countries, such as China, Japan and Iceland, where heavily smoked, salted and/or pickled foods are consumed on a daily basis as major dietary items, death rates from cancers of the esophagus and stomach are very high.

Traditional food preparation methods have simply been grandfathered in as safe. This is not the case with the new technology of food irradiation. Researchers around the world have scrutinized food irradiation for decades. The FDA drew upon hundreds of studies in its decision to approve irradiation of types of food it has so far approved.

This double standard persists in the claim that irradiation destroys nutrients. Ellen Haas, then-Executive Director of Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a group strongly opposed to both pesticides and food irradiation, told a television audience in 1986, "There are nutrient losses. Look at all these good vegetables, but when you irradiate them, what happens to the nutrients? Do they stay there? Not as much. Consumers will be getting a bum deal when they have irradiated food."

Actually, most of the data which suggest that irradiation causes nutrient depletion was collected prior to 1964. Newer technology irradiates food at lower temperatures than it did previously. At any rate, any processing of food causes nutrient loss, as does cooking. "Enriched bread" is enriched because milling whole wheat to make white bread strips out vitamins. Boiling vegetables sends many of the vitamins down the drain. Nutrient analyses should compare irradiated food not with raw foods but with foods preserved by other processes. Food irradiation won’t cause any more destruction of nutrients than canning or other food-processing technologies. That Haas either did not know this or did not want her audience to is of some concern since President Clinton made her assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer services.

So what’s eating the anti-irradiation activists?

It’s essentially the same technophobia that leads these activists to question the pesticides, the powerlines, and the electronic equipment that has made life so much easier and safer in the post-war period. Old real risks such as stomach cancer from salting and curing or botulism from botched canning are acceptable, but anything smacking of new technology is to be feared, loathed and fought often with great success.

So far, despite the approvals of numerous foods for irradiation, and despite thousands of food poisoning deaths from various types of meat each year in this country, these products are almost completely unavailable in the U.S. Speaking over a decade ago, Douglas L. Archer, then-director of the Division of Microbiology at the FDA, said "If it’s instituted correctly, and if the public accepts it, food irradiation could obviously have a dramatic impact" on food-borne disease. Thus far, however, the activists campaign of misinformation against the public and threats and intimidation against stores and restaurants have ensured that it’s had virtually no effect. It’s enough to make you sick.

Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on food irradiation.