Zapped! How Irradiation Is Threatening Our Food System
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The following is an excerpt from the book Zapped! Irradiation and the Death of Food by Wenonah Hauter (Food & Water Watch, 2008).
Over the decades, the effects of irradiation have been compared dismissively to sunlight and glibly to atomic bombs -- and many images in between. Few grasp it completely, one of many reasons for its obscurity. Though the issue is kaleidoscopic, one needn't be an expert in physics or food science to gain a basic understanding.
Knowing what irradiation isn't is just as important as knowing what it is, if not more so. Irradiated foods don't glow in the dark. It doesn't make food measurably radioactive, though a mind-boggling FDA ruling could change this by dramatically increasing the maximum allowable radiation dose. And you won't sprout a sixth finger if you eat the stuff.
Now for what irradiation is. It uses astronomically powerful blasts of X-rays, electron beams, and gamma rays to kill bacteria, to extend shelf life of food by delaying ripening and spoiling, and to eradicate fruit flies and other invasive pests.
Here's where a little chemistry and physics come in. This radiation is ionizing, meaning it has enough energy to blow apart molecules and eject electrons that then bounce around crazily to form new bits of matter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, non-ionizing radiation such as microwaves, infrared, and visible light can't smash molecules. The industry commonly exploits this misunderstood subtlety to confuse the public by inferring that irradiation is just like microwaving.
No matter what type of facility you're talking about, food is exposed to ionizing radiation. The ionizing radiation can be from gamma rays produced by radioactive materials like cobalt-60. Or the ionizing radiation can be generated from using electricity to produce X-rays or electron beams. Electron beams are produced by linear accelerators. Because of its high energy level, ionizing radiation can knock electrons out of molecular orbits, which then slam into other molecules, dislodge more electrons, form new molecules, dislodge more electrons, and so on.
Gamma radiation is often preferred by food irradiators because it can penetrate deeply, and using a radioactive material to irradiate is cheaper. Electron beams penetrate food to a depth of only one-and-a-half inches, which means that linear accelerators are only useful for irradiating thin foods like hamburgers. X-rays can also penetrate deeply, but this technology is much more expensive to use because of the large amounts of electricity that are necessary.
Other forms of ionizing radiation include cosmic rays and higher-frequency ultraviolet rays. Because they are emitted from the nuclei of radioactive isotopes, gamma rays, the type of radiation created by radioactive materials like cobalt-60, have the added ability to make other things radioactive.
Non-ionizing radiation includes visible light, infrared (heat), microwaves, and radio waves. This type of energy does not have sufficient energy to dislodge electrons.
The best example of how ionizing and non-ionizing radiation have vastly different effects is the human body. Ionizing radiation damages chromosomes by blowing apart DNA molecules, which can lead to leukemia and other cancers. In the case of chromosomes of sperm and egg cells, this can cause birth defects. Children of women exposed to ionizing radiation during pregnancy can be born with brain and eye abnormalities, skeleton defects, an abnormal number of fingers and toes, and failure to thrive.
Non-ionizing radiation, because of its lower energy level, can merely cause molecules to vibrate and heat up-again like microwaving leftovers. Electrons are not ripped out of their orbits. Chromosomes and DNA are not damaged.
No, the ionizing radiation used to "treat" food does not get passed on to people who eat irradiated foods.
However, irradiation does create changes in food, and is regulated as a food additive. The FDA is required by federal law to establish at least a 100-fold safety factor for humans. This is achieved by determining the highest level at which laboratory animals are unharmed by a proposed additive-the "highest no-adverse effect level"-and then dividing that level by 100.
But, in violation of their own safety protocols, including the 100-fold safety factor, the FDA has approved many foods for irradiation. Scientists have observed serious health problems in lab animals fed irradiated foods. Those include premature death, cancer, tumors, stillbirths, mutations, organ damage, immune system failure and stunted growth.
However, it's what irradiation does to bacteria that's found in food -- obliterating their DNA so they cannot reproduce -- not the safety issues that has created interest among meat industry executives and their allies in government. Foodborne illness, largely the result of industrialized food production, has sown panic both here and abroad. Once-harmless bacteria are mutating into deadly strains that medicine can't keep up with. For instance, E. coli , a common bacteria in feces mutated into a the deadly 0157:H7 strain, which has killed hundreds of people. Yet very few industry and government leaders are interested in fundamental, long-overdue reforms of the food safety and inspection system that would address this issue.
USDA Reduces Inspections, Filth Increases
Quite the opposite. Starting with the Clinton administration, the federal government has been lobbied by the meat industry to sharply reduce the authority of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspectors and handed more power to meat companies to "inspect" themselves. This was done at the same time that the technology to speed up slaughter lines became available -- 200 birds per minute, 1,100 hogs and 400 cows per hour.
Less inspection and faster slaughter and meat processing spells disaster. After dozens of people were killed, recalls were issued for hundreds of millions of pounds of potentially dirty meat. Stuff was getting through that shouldn't have been.
Irradiation offers an alluringly simple solution: instead of keeping meat free of feces, urine, pus, vomit and other bacteria havens during animal slaughter and processing, just zap food at the end of the line, killing the bacteria regardless of how much it had contaminated the meat.
However, consumers don't want to eat fecal matter or other contaminants, even if the bacteria has been killed. Consumers want to be confidant that there food is safe and clean. Rather than ringing out every possible cent of profit by moving slaughter lines at impossibly fast speeds, and reducing inspection, the meat industry needs to slow down the lines and the USDA needs to tighten up inspection.
But, the industry is looking for a silver bullet. And, with the acceleration of globalized food production, irradiation can enhance profits because it increases shelf life at the same time that it kills bacteria. This is attractive to some multinational corporations that are moving their operations to the developing world, where labor is cheap and environmental laws are often not enforced.
Imagine the excitement at a company like Dole that produces fruit in Latin America where labor costs are a fraction of those in the United States, and having the produce last up to three times as long as its non-irradiated counterpart. An auxiliary benefit is irradiation's sterilization of insects. In the past, many fruits and vegetables could not be shipped into the United States because of the fear of invasive insects, but irradiation solves that problem. No wonder some irradiation proponents view the technology as a silver bullet.
The Road To Irradiation
While industry and government have only recently begun to hail irradiation as a revolutionary technology, it was first legalized in the U.S. way back in 1963. The Army won permission from the Food and Drug Administration to irradiate bacon and serve it to military personnel. With hostilities on the rise in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon needed better ways to keep food from rotting before reaching distant battlefields.
In the first of many setbacks, the FDA yanked the Army's bacon permit when secret papers documenting premature death, cancer, and other serious health problems in lab animals fed irradiated foods came to light. At a Congressional Hearing on food irradiation in 1966, an aghast member of Congress, Melvin Price, who'd eaten irradiated food called himself a "guinea pig." Two years later, an unnerved FDA official, Associate Commissioner Daniel Banes, feared another Thalidomide disaster.
The FDA renewed its interest in irradiation in the early 1980s. But the agency's flip-flop had so far almost nothing to do with food safety, and almost everything to do with politics. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), a big promoter of all things nuclear, advocated using the radioactive waste left behind from making bombs to irradiate food. DOE pressured the FDA to reverse its long-held position that irradiated foods pose health risks.
The experiment ended in disgrace in 1988 when a radioactive cesium-137 capsule that was being used to irradiate food sprung a leak near Atlanta, Georgia. An estimated 70,000 milk cartons, contact lens solution boxes and other containers were shipped out from the irradiation facility after they were splashed with radioactive water. Only about 900 of the contaminated containers were recovered. The ensuing taxpayer-funded cleanup cost $50 million.
Still, the FDA went ahead and legalized irradiation-based on shaky scientific evidence-for many types of food, including fruit, vegetables, beef, poultry, pork, eggs, spices, shellfish, and fruit and vegetable juice. As of this writing, the FDA was considering legalizing irradiated ready-to-eat foods and vitamins, despite a shocking lack of research vouching for the safety of these foods when irradiated (see Appendix E for approved and proposed foods).
In addition to the U.S., irradiated foods are legal in about 50 countries scattered around the globe (see Appendix F). Exact figures are impossible to calculate, but an estimated 250,000 tons of food-500 million pounds-are zapped worldwide each year. Of that, about a third is herbs and spices, much of which is Chinese garlic. A variety of irradiated staple foods have been sold to the public since the 1970s. Irradiated onions have been sold in Argentina, dried fish in Bangladesh, apples in China, potatoes in Pakistan, mangoes in South Africa and "nahm" (fermented pork sausage) in Thailand.
The history is fuzzy, but irradiated foods are believed to have premiered commercially in the U.S. in March 1992, when a grocer named James Corrigan began selling zapped strawberries, grapefruit, and oranges in his family-run store, Carrot Top, in the Chicago suburb of Glenview. He stocked irradiated chicken a year later, bringing national attention to Food Technology Service. This was also the year of Jack-in-the-Box, which again thrust irradiation into the spotlight and led the FDA to legalize irradiated beef.
On May 16, 2000, frozen hamburgers irradiated by a linear accelerator in Sioux City, Iowa, went on sale in 84 grocery stores in the Twin Cities. The media devoured the story: "Incredible." "Historic." "Groundbreaking." Within two years, according to the food irradiation industry, zapped beef was on sale coast-to-coast in 5,000 stores, including Albertson's/Jewel-Osco, Giant, Pathmark, Safeway, and Winn-Dixie (though this figure could never be independently confirmed. However, it turns out that most of the media attention was hype that didn't confer economic benefits to the irradiation industry.
But, after 50 years of disappointment and humiliation, the irradiation movement puffed out its chest-and declared that irradiation's time had come. It did, at times, to disturbing and laughable extremes.
In 2003, when the USDA lifted its ban on irradiated ground beef in the National School Lunch Program, which feeds 27 million financially disadvantaged children a day, the irradiation industry seemed to have reached an important turning point. Thus far, however, the decision seems to have backfired. As if it wasn't controversial enough that the government was delivering captive consumers to the irradiation industry. These consumers are poor children who have little choice but to eat what's put in front of them. Worse still, schools are not required to tell the public if they're serving irradiated foods.
Outraged parents pounded the USDA with e-mails and phone calls. About a dozen U.S. school districts were quick to ban irradiated foods, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In a departure from decades past, the media coverage was critical to irradiation, even hostile in places. As of this writing, no U.S. school had ordered irradiated ground beef. Beyond the smattering of irradiated burgers still on grocery store shelves, the only other zapped foods known to be irradiated in significant amounts in the U.S. are herbs and spices. No one really knows how much food is really being irradiated.
Deepening the mystery, public disclosure is also not required in restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes, schools, and other institutional settings for any irradiated foods.
Public disclosure has always been a slippery matter. Sales are difficult to track because the major irradiation companies almost never identify their clients, to avoid public opposition. Moreover, government officials say they don't keep track of what foods are irradiated or where they're sold. The nuclear industry is fond of calling consumer advocates and environmentalists paranoid and suspicious ...
Who's Doing It?
The difficulty in finding out who's making irradiated foods and where they're being sold has been a problem for consumers and consumer groups for decades. A secretive bunch has been behind irradiation for the past 50 years: nuclear scientists, military officers, government regulators, and theoretically beneficent organizations linked to the United Nations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Up until only about 10 years ago, it was the nuclear industry, not the food industry that was promoting irradiation. It's a technology spawned of the post-World War II atomic craze, when Glenn Seaborg and other nuclear pioneers worshipped for their genius made predictions of atomic-powered airplanes, cars, wristwatches-even artificial suns. Finding "peaceful" uses of the technology that brought us the atomic bomb, not making food safer, was the irradiation movement's prime directive.
Chalk this up as a key reason for irradiation's sketchy performance. "The midwife attending the birth of food irradiation was nuclear fission, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This stigma has dogged its progress ever since," said the late Edward Josephson, who ran the Army's doomed irradiation program in the 1960s. "If food irradiation had been spawned of medical applications of nuclear energy, the public today would be enjoying its benefits."
On top of perception problems, irradiation is enormously expensive and, because it uses radiation, dangerous. Many types of fruit, vegetables, and meat, along with nearly all dairy products, cannot withstand titanic blasts of radiation. Lemons turn black, lettuce shrivels, beef smells like a wet dog, pork turns red and eggs become runny.
And there are serious logistical problems. Trucks already driving hundreds or thousands of miles would have to make lengthy detours to irradiation facilities, only a few of which are specifically designed to handle food. (Irradiators mainly treat herbs and spices, medical supplies, cosmetics, and specialty items such as gemstones, botanicals, and beehives.)
But, irradiation can also be used to mask filthy conditions in animal slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. As long as the bacteria are killed so the reasoning goes, it's not a problem that meat may contain sterile feces and urine.
Down the line, irradiation could delay comprehensive improvements to the safety and wholesomeness of our food supply. Several years of false hope could set back progress for decades. By extending shelf life, it could also advance the already monstrous global food trade, which has decimated farm economies in the developing and developed world alike.
And irradiation, which is done in centralized facilities, is most profitable for big, vertically integrated corporations. Irradiation facilities are expensive, and they require large capital investments. The use of irradiation is another reason that the consolidation in the food industry, particularly the meat sector, is advantageous. A bundle of recent mega-mergers, featuring Smithfield-Farmland in 2003 and Tyson-IBP in 2001, have concentrated enormous economic and political power in the hands of so few people that it borders on oligarchy. The Tyson-IBP deal has been called "deadly" for consumers and family farmers alike.
But, the irradiation industry has its cheerleaders. Michael Osterholm is the movement's version of Karl Rove. "To say that irradiation is a problem," he once snapped, "is to argue that the Earth is flat." It's the media's fault: "There are so many myths, misconceptions, and, frankly, outright lies being spread about."
Osterholm is a legend in irradiation circles. He runs a prominent research center at the University of Minnesota. He's received numerous national awards, and written more than 300 scholarly papers. He's helped solve many medical mysteries, including a diarrhea outbreak among the Minnesota Vikings football team, and a 220,000-victim Salmonella disaster that put him in the national spotlight, which he has not relinquished.
People in the spotlight sometimes find themselves telling it not quite like it is. "Heat is radiation," Osterholm once said when asked to explain food irradiation -- implying that holding some cobalt-60 in your hand is no more dangerous than holding a light bulb.
Food irradiation advocates have built their movement on saying anything.
SureBeam Corp. called its irradiated hamburgers "electronically pasteurized" until the USDA whacked the company. SureBeam irradiated food with a linear accelerator, which uses electricity to produce ionizing radiation. But, whether the radiation comes from radioactive materials, a linear accelerator, or an x-ray machine, it is still ionizing radiation-and the effects on food are the same. While the linear accelerator does not use radioactive materials to produce radiation, its inner chamber where the irradiation takes place becomes extremely radioactive. Electronic pasteurization is an inaccurate label for a process that irradiates with ionizing radiation.
The mother of all deceptions is also the mother of all ironies. Illinois-based irradiator Sterigenics argued to a judge in 1996 that it deserved a tax break because its cobalt-60 "loses part of itself, which becomes radiation that is absorbed and permanently retained by the customers' products . The cobalt-60...thus is delivered to the customer." (Emphasis in the original.) So in order to save on taxes, Sterigenics swore in court to the opposite of what the irradiation industry has pledged for decades and continues to say-that radiation simply passes through food. Sterigenics lost the case, and the industry's reputation took a major hit.
It is SureBeam, however, that has done more public relations damage than perhaps any other irradiation company. A spin-off of secretive defense contractor Titan Corp. of San Diego, SureBeam zapped food with linear accelerators designed for the "Star Wars" missile-defense system.
SureBeam went bankrupt in 2004 and its irradiated ground beef disappeared from thousands of grocery stores nationwide. The federal government investigated questionable accounting practices. Irate stockholders filed class-action lawsuits. False advertising complaints were lodged against companies for not properly labeling their irradiated products.
Moreover, people do not want irradiation facilities built in their communities, round the world, from the Philiphines and Australia to the United States, citizens are fighting to prevent cobalt-60 irradiators from being built. People also rose up in Maine, New Jersey and New York in the late 1980s, pushing through statewide bans on irradiated foods. Bans have also been passed in Cleveland and several surrounding communities.
Behind a veil of misinformation is an industry that would have self-destructed long ago had it not been propped up by the U.S. government. Public opinion polls consistently say most Americans want to know if their food is irradiated. A 1999 poll commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that 88.6 percent of Americans wanted irradiated food labeled. Similarly, a 1997 CBS News poll found that 77 percent of Americans said they would not buy irradiated food.
Nearly all test-markets of irradiated foods over the past 20 years have ended in failure.
SureBeam's rollout was so poorly executed that meat department managers throughout the country didn't know their stores were even carrying the burgers.
Like perpetual motion machines, domed cities and other great promises of the Atomic Age, food irradiation has been trumpeted by an entranced media parroting industry rhetoric without questioning any of the "facts." Many reporters seem to think the issue is too complicated, too obscure, or that it's not a "problem" yet. It may be so closely associated with the nuclear debate that it's too hot to handle for reporters or more likely their publishers, especially those with political and corporate ties that corrupt news judgment.
The industry has survived because of its close association with what Eisenhower called the "military industrial complex," and because of public unawareness, misunderstanding, and misconceptions.. This confusion is understandable, given some of the irradiation movement's tactics.
A South African grocery maven once said at an international conference, "We must confer with experts in the various fields of advertising and psychology to put the public at ease, and develop a more friendly feeling to irradiation." A U.N. consultant added that words like "radiation" that would "inspire fear and cause the product to be avoided" should not appear on labels.
Indeed, the industry desperately wants government permission to label irradiated foods "cold pasteurized" or "electronically pasteurized," despite overwhelming consumer feedback to the FDA that this would be "sneaky" and "a fake."
Between 2001 and 2002, the FDA received 20,000 comments with this message. In truth, the battle over irradiation has mainly been a battle over information. From the start in the 1950s, everyone with their fingerprints on irradiation has said "education" is the key to consumer acceptance. The food and nuclear industries have been spreading fantastically biased information for decades.
Clearly, this issue cannot be fully understood in isolation. Beyond food safety lies questions about the potential effects on small-scale farmers and ranchers, its role in the global food trade, its place in broader food safety reforms, and the philosophy of science-whether it is best to conquer nature rather than work with it.
Neither irradiation nor any other technology should be permitted to enter the mainstream before a thorough public debate is held based on a complete range of analyses, not merely the assertions of institutions with financial or political stakes in the outcome.
This decision should not be made by cloistered Beltway bureaucrats whose daily existence rarely takes them beyond their own four walls, or by corporate executives who treat food like so many widgets while angling for bonuses and stock options. The decision should be made by the people who will ultimately benefit or suffer: consumers.
Wenonah Hauter is the executive director of Food & Water Watch.