Clean food, or irradiated dirty food?
The irradiation industry is betting that consumers will settle for the latter.
Earlier this month, in response to a petition filed by Isomedix, a New Jersey radiation firm, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized the use of irradiation -- a process by which food is exposed to high levels of nuclear radiation -- for meat products including beef, lamb and pork. Irradiation is already permitted in the United States for poultry. Irradiation kills significant numbers of micro-organisms, such as E. coli.
Companies like Isomedix are hoping to ride the wave of justified public concern over outbreaks of E. coli and other food contaminants to overcome consumer resistance to the controversial irradiation process. Public opinion polls show three quarters of the population oppose irradiation and would refuse to eat irradiated food.
There are sound reasons underlying consumer resistance to irradiation.
First, although the FDA has approved the use of irradiation, there are serious uncertainties surrounding the safety of irradiated foods. "No long-term studies on the safety of eating irradiated beef have been conducted, and the effects on humans are unknown," notes Michael Colby, executive director of Food & Water, Inc., a Vermont-based food safety organization that is the leading opponent of food irradiation.
Second, irradiation kills "good" as well as "bad" bacteria. That means if beef becomes contaminated after radiation, dangerous bacteria will be free to multiply without competition from harmless bacteria.
Third, irradiation fails to deal with the real food safety problem: unhealthy conditions on animal farms and in slaughterhouses and packinghouses. In the last two decades, the meat and poultry industries have become tremendously concentrated, with each sector dominated by a handful of giants like ConAgra, Cargill, Perdue and Tyson. These companies buy animals raised on "factory farms," where the animals are confined to small spaces in which bacteria can easily spread. The animals are transported to increasingly mechanized slaughterhouses and processing plants, where feces routinely spill or spray on meat, and chicken carcasses are dipped in cold water tanks contaminated with fecal material. Animals pass by workers on the corporate assembly lines at staggering speeds -- often too fast for the workers to maintain proper sanitation standards, or even to identify contaminants on meat or poultry. Genuinely ensuring a safe food supply requires addressing these conditions so that animals are raised, slaughtered and processed in sanitary conditions.
There are other reasons to reject irradiation. At existing irradiation facilities (which overwhelmingly sterilize products like medical equipment rather than food), there is already a disturbing record of worker overexposure to nuclear radiation and of improper disposal of radioactive waste.
Fortunately, the FDA's approval of irradiation for beef does not mean it must be widely used. If consumers reject the technology, it will not gain a foothold in the market.
Under the innovative leadership of Food & Water, Inc., consumers so far have done exactly that. Although it has urged the government not to permit irradiation, Food & Water's emphasis has been on directing consumer pressure to food suppliers -- from McDonald's to Hormel (makers of Spam) to supermarket chains -- and extracting commitments that they will not sell irradiated food products. That strategy has succeeded so far, and there is good reason to believe it will continue to keep irradiated food off of supermarket shelves and out of fast-food kitchens.
The solution to the problem of dirty and contaminated meat and poultry is to clean up the beef, pork and poultry farms and the factories in which animals are slaughtered and processed -- not to expose the food to nuclear radiation. That's the message consumers must send to the beef, pork and poultry companies, supermarkets, restaurant chains and other big food distributors.
COPYRIGHT © RUSSELL MOKHIBER AND ROBERT WEISSMAN