What if the fresh fruits and vegetables in our stores turned out to be deadly? With the help of the federal government, this nightmare may soon become truth. On April 18, 1986, the Food and Drug Administration approved guidelines for the irradiation of fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, teas, spices, and some meats. Yet as of 1991, hundreds of major food companies have prohibited the use of irradiated foods in their products to quell public fear. No major commercial facility is yet operational in the United States, but this may soon change as a result of a new irradiation plant that is prepared to begin treating citrus, poultry and shellfish within the next few months. (This facility is now in operation.)
As approved by the FDA, food can be exposed to high levels of ionizing gamma radiation from either cobalt-60 or cesium-137 in order to destroy microorganisms and increase shelf life. The amount of radiation varies between 100,000 rad (equivalent to 10 million chest X-rays) to 3,000,000 rad (300 million chest X-rays) depending on the product involved. There is substantial evidence that this causes chemical changes in the irradiated food, including a 20-80% loss of significant vitamin content and the creation of dangerous chemicals that can cause cancer. Irradiation does not make the food radioactive, but it may put the consumer at risk. It is astonishing, then, that the FDA has so warmly endorsed this process after a review that scientists and activists alike have criticized as woefully inadequate.
The research used to approve food irradiation casts some doubt on its safety. Out of 441 available studies on irradiation, the FDA only relied upon five, claiming that the rest did not meet the proper criteria. Of the five, three seemed to cast doubts on the safety of irradiation (one found that animals fed a diet of irradiated food experienced weight loss and miscarriage), while the other two that found no adverse effects were found on foods exposed to less than 100,000 rad. The FDA now wants to adopt 300,000 as the general dosage level, despite the fact that none of their studies have been done on food treated with such a high level of radiation.
One explanation comes from an interested partner, the Department of Energy. The DOE is under a mandate to develop commercial uses for highly radioactive waste under its Byproducts Utilization Program (BUP). A commercial demand for cesium would take pressure off the nuclear industry to safely dispose of waste from civilian and military reactors. It is no surprise that food irradiation finds support in the federal government, where a willingness to ignore the health and safety risks of radioactivity is a long-established practice.
The proponents of food irradiation claim that the practice would eliminate the need for many hazardous pesticides, reduce the risk of salmonella poisoning and trichinosis, and prolong shelf life. But opponents argue that such issues could be better addressed through a variety of natural techniques and good cooking practices, and that irradiated foods would be improperly marketed as though they were fresh. It is impossible to determine if foodstuffs have been irradiated, which means that products that have been treated could easily be confused with non-irradiated stock, eliminating a customer’s ability to choose. Furthermore, critics claim that the hazards of irradiation outweigh any benefits touted by those who support the building of such facilities. Though irradiation may kill certain types of bacteria that are associated with spoilage, it may not affect other bacteria, like those that produce the botulism toxin. In addition, the chemicals that form as a result of the irradiation procedure have caused birth defects in laboratory animals as well as increased incidences of cancer. Apparently, consumers are not convinced that the benefits of irradiation outweigh the risks, and concerned local officials are taking action. Currently, three states (Maine, New York, and Massachusetts) have banned the sale of irradiated foods and 13 others have legislation pending.
Irradiation facilities are prone to accidents in which highly radioactive materials escape into the environment either at the plant or while in transport. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has documented 54 accidents involving radioactive substances at 132 facilities over the last 17 years. In one instance at a plant that treats medical products in Dover, New Jersey, cobalt-60 was found in soil samples near the facility and two employees were indicted by a federal jury for ordering others to flush radioactive water into the sewage system. Surrounding communities are not prepared to handle a serious accident at a food irradiation facility. Accidents which could occur while radioactive materials were in transport would threaten many more lives.
As the controversy rages, a plant built by the Vindicator company of Florida nears completion. If it is allowed to operate without opposition, then irradiation may be extended for other uses and more plants will likely follow across the country. Meanwhile, the effects of irradiation may not be known until a generation of people have been used as guinea pigs. As representatives of that generation, we have an obligation to stop such reckless behavior.
What you can do:
- Call the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS) at 904488-3022, which is working with the Department of Energy to promote and market irradiated foods. Ask for Commissioner Bob Crawford and tell him that you will never buy irradiated foods. In addition, since irradiated foods need not be labelled as such, let him know that you will not buy any foods from Florida if they begin operating the Vindicator facility.
- Write to state legislators and encourage them to support legislation banning the sale or transport of irradiated foods in your state.
- Call Food & Water (800-EAT-SAFE), the only national group fighting to protect consumers from the hazards of irradiation, and ask for a free information packet