Nuke Burgers: The Meat Industry's Solution to E.Coli Is the Big Zap Attack
Like most patriotic Americans, I love a good cheeseburger, oozing juice and fresh from the grill on a summer's afternoon. Praise the Lord and pass the catsup! But would I want to die for one? Would you? In recent years, outbreaks of virulent food poisoning caused by Escherichia coli 0157:H7, a mutant form of the E. coli found in the guts of all mammals, have put that question on the national agenda. One answer offered by a coterie of government and private researchers, meat industry lobbyists and nuclear power advocates is to zap meat with radiation. That's right: They say they'll make your food safer by nuking it. Ferrying pre-packaged meat past cobalt-60 or cesium-137 -- or exposing it to an accelerated electron beam equivalent to millions of chest X-rays -- kills bugs like E. coli, campylobacter, salmonella, listeria monocytogenes and others by tearing apart the molecular structure of their DNA. Sounds scary? Don't worry, proponents purr. The meat never touches the radioactive material, nor does the process make the meat radioactive. They claim that decades of study, and feeding irradiated food to astronauts, proves that the food is nutritious and safer to eat than non-irradiated food. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), they point out, have already approved the irradiation of dry herbs and spices, pork, fruits and vegetables and poultry. And concerns about potential environmental or worker safety hazards from widescale use of irradiation to fight food contamination are pooh-poohed with glowing assurances that the existing medical irradiation industry -- which sterilizes medical instruments and uses the same technology that would be used on meat -- has a "spotless" record. But the industry's record is far from spotless. One corporate president went to jail. Workers have ended up in hospitals. Equipment has malfunctioned. And radioactive garbage has contaminated plants and gotten into the environment. Some of the most egregious violators of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) safety rules are the same firms that have submitted petitions to the FDA for the approval of food irradiation (by law, irradiation is considered a "food additive" subject to FDA regulation). The hollow assurances of the industry's safety cast irradiation champions' other claims of wholesomeness in a dubious light. Food & Water, Inc., a Vermont-based environmental and nutrition advocacy group, charges that the FDA and the USDA have abdicated their consumer protection role to become cheerleaders for irradiation. "The USDA is charged with promoting meat products but they're also supposed to be doing oversight. That's a huge conflict of interest," says Food & Water director Michael Colby. "They're in charge of policing this technology but with the other hand they're promoting it." "Basically, we don't endorse it, we permit it -- based on the FDA's assessment that it is safe to irradiate food," says USDA spokesperson Stephen Lombardi. Don't endorse it? The agency supplies operating funds for an electron-beam irradiator at Iowa State University. It puts out pamphlets presenting a rosy picture of irradiation. And -- along with an irradiation company with a history of NRC safety violations -- the USDA petitioned its sister agency, the FDA, to approve the irradiation of poultry before the USDA itself approved the process. The push to irradiate food to kill bacteria and, in the case of fruits and vegetables, insects and other pests, isn't new. Food irradiation originated as a component of President Dwight Eisenhower's "Atoms for Peace" program, the government's attempt to put a cheerful demeanor on the threatening face of the nuclear weapons establishment. Most research money came from the Army and the Atomic Energy Commission (now the NRC) until 1980. At that point, the USDA, which is responsible for the safety of the country's food supply, took over. The International Atomic Energy Agency has played a key role in hyping the process in global forums. And pro-nuclear agencies have funded most food irradiation research. "The pressure for food irradiation comes from the DOE [Department of Energy], the USDA, the existing fledgling irradiation industry and its brothers and sisters in the larger nuke industry, and the American Meat Institute. You add it all up and you've got an iron triangle of industry, government and trade association," Colby says. "That's a formidable opponent to a public that opposes irradiation but we've beaten them back, held them off for 10 years." Indeed, the technology is not yet widely used. Consumer wariness and high-profile pressure from Food & Water -- threatened boycotts, radio ads, ads in food industry trade magazines and demonstrations outside stores and plants -- have given most food companies and supermarket chains the willies. But while they haven't cast their lot with irradiation today, many companies and trade associations are hedging their bets for tomorrow by funding consumer research into how shoppers might be convinced to buy nukeburgers and bankrolling organizations like the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology (CAST), which produces a steady drumbeat of pro-irradiation issue papers. Permission to irradiate red meat -- beef -- is the Holy Grail for which the irradiation industry is crusading; a petition has been before the FDA since August 1994. The only plant constructed specifically to irradiate foods, the Food Technology Services (FTS) facility in Mulberry, Florida, has been limping along the past several years irradiating spices. A hoped-for bonanza of Florida produce to irradiate has never materialized due to fear of consumer outcry. Poultry irradiation is hung up on FDA approval of the packaging tray (meats are processed in their consumer packaging to stave off recontamination). FTS, formerly known as Vindicator, has survived through cash infusions from Nordion International, Inc., its Canadian supplier of cobalt-60 and irradiation equipment. "The irradiation industry will be established processing meats," says Harley Everett, FTS's executive vice president. "Irradiating fruits and vegetables extends shelf life. That makes money but it doesn't save lives." Providing the red meat petition is approved by the FDA, Dennis Olson, a researcher at Iowa State University who oversees the electron beam irradiator, says two likely factors will determine the success of the food irradiation industry: another large outbreak of E. coli poisoning and the extent of the resulting liability damages companies would have to pay. "In our day and age of litigation and huge damages, companies don't want to expose themselves to that kind of threat," Olson says. "That may be enough to have them go to irradiation." "We don't think anyone questions that there is a problem with contamination of meat, and it's getting worse. But we differ as to what to do about it," says Michael Colby. "We don't think zapping is the solution. It just creates additional problems." Opponents of food irradiation, such as Food & Water, and skeptics -- including the consumer group the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP, an E. coli poisoning victims advocacy group) -- charge that irradiation of red meat is a shortcut, an attempt to avoid cleaning up the food production process. Inadequate plant sanitation and antiquated and under-staffed inspection processes, they say, are to blame for problems. "Irradiation is an end-of-the-line technique to improve food safety that doesn't address the underlying question of why these products become contaminated in the first place," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for CSPI. "I don't believe consumers want feces on their meat or poultry products." "I challenge you to find fecal matter on beef," counters Janet Riley, a spokesperson for the American Meat Institute (AMI), the chief lobbying arm for the meat and poultry industry. "The USDA has a zero tolerance policy. You have to trim any visible contamination." But, as Rainer Mueller, president of STOP, notes, E. coli 0157:H7 can cause illness with only 10 cells. "There's no way an inspector can see E. coli cells," declares Mueller, whose 13-year-old son Eric died of E. coli poisoning from a tainted cheeseburger in 1993. CSPI's Smith DeWaal notes, "If you have cases of E. coli in beef products there has been some manure contact at some point to get there. It may be an insignificant or small amount." According to Riley, AMI is "supportive" of meat irradiation, but "we don't see it as the be-all, end-all of food safety either." She says that -- contrary to charges that irradiation is a substitute for cleaning up farms, feedlots, slaughterhouses, and processing plants -- the meat industry is pursuing safety from farm to table. "Have you seen a plant?" she asks me. (I haven't.) "They're like operating rooms. I'm amazed at the precautions they take, it's incredible. The problem is the visual images people have of processing plants are visions of yesteryear." If meat processors are so clean then why do they need irradiation? Ironically, the analogy that Iowa State's Dennis Olson uses is also to operating rooms. "Even in hospital operating rooms people get infections," Olson says. "You're never going to have processing plants like operating rooms. There's bacteria everywhere." While AMI roots for irradiation, some meat processors have doubts that go beyond issues of consumer acceptance. Gary Michaelson, a spokesperson for International Beef Processors, Inc. (IBP), says the company does not irradiate its product and has no plans to do so. "We contracted for an evaluation with outside laboratories and it showed that current irradiation procedures affect meat flavor and color stability," Michaelson says. CSPI and STOP have no official position on irradiation, but Food & Water's Colby blasts it as a "radical and dangerous technology." Food & Water's specific concerns:*The bombardment of foods with enormous amounts of ionizing radiation -- more than enough to kill human beings -- disrupts the molecular structure and creates "radiolytic products," new chemicals formed as a result of the irradiation process. Some of these are known carcinogens. *Irradiation significantly depletes some key nutrients and vitamins. *Wide-scale use of irradiation to process food would be an environmental and worker safety disaster. That radiolytic products exist isn't in dispute, only whether they are significant. Food & Water says the creation of toxic chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde and formic acid presents a potential health risk -- including cancer -- that has not been sufficiently researched. A hotly disputed study conducted in India in the 1970s found significant numbers of intrauterine deaths and depression in immune response in rats and mice fed freshly irradiated wheat. There was also an increase in polyploid cells, a chromosomal abnormality, in the bone marrow of rats and mice and the blood of children and monkeys fed freshly irradiated wheat. Similar results were not obtained from non-irradiated wheat or irradiated wheat that had been stored for three months prior to feeding. One of the researchers, Dr. Vijaylaxmi, a geneticist now at the University of Texas, "strongly suspects there are radiolytic products which are problematic in these studies." "In regard to polyploid cells, we do not know the significance of these cells so we expressed a note of caution, but scientific studies have shown that they are associated with cancer -- whether polyploid cells cause cancer or cancer produces polyploid cells, we don't know," Dr. Vijaylaxmi says. "But we do know the significance of intrauterine death and depressed immune response and I would consider that a strong factor in whether one chooses to eat irradiated food. If the choice was given to me, I wouldn't eat irradiated food." Radiation proponents dismiss concerns over radiolytic products, equating them with similar changes that occur from cooking. They contend that, in fact, studies prove irradiated food is safe. Olson, the Iowa State University researcher, says the FDA "didn't find anything that would suggest an unsafe condition." "While Food & Water tries to take the debate to the public, where they need to go if they have credible evidence is the FDA," Olson argues. "They can scare people by saying it produces benzene and benzene is carcinogenic and they can debate it in the newspapers but the real judge is the FDA." How the FDA has performed in its role as a judge, though, is a point of contention. From the late 1960s, when the FDA rescinded its approval of an Army petition to irradiate bacon because the agency concluded the data didn't prove the process was safe, until the early 1980s, FDA skepticism stalled growth of food irradiation. But in 1980, the FDA executed a turnaround and, following the lead of a committee organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency, declared food irradiated up to a dose of 100,000 rads safe and in need of no further testing. In short order, the FDA gave thumbs-up to the irradiation of herbs and spices (1983), pork (1985) and -- petitioning itself! -- fruits and vegetables (1986). Out of 441 studies of the effects of food irradiation, the FDA concluded that "only five... were considered by agency reviewers to be properly conducted, fully adequate by 1980 toxicological standards, and able to stand alone in the support of safety." Dr. Donald Louria, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at the New Jersey Medical School, reviewed the five studies cited by the FDA. His conclusion? "The FDA studies did not document safety." Writing in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in 1990, Louria stated that two studies were methodologically flawed (and one of those two suggested an adverse effect on older animals) and in a third FDA-cited study, "animals fed a diet of irradiated food experienced weight loss and miscarriage." According to Louria, the other two studies appeared to be conducted adequately but dealt with food irradiated at doses lower than the FDA allows. Louria acknowledges that "a lot of good scientists are for [irradiation]" but he is adamant that more testing is needed. "People in the industry will not settle the issues," he states. "They should do a chromosome study on people given irradiated food." Louria thinks it's likely such tests would show irradiated food to be harmless, "but they won't do it." Louria also believes irradiation advocates have been dismissive of concerns over vitamin loss in irradiated foods. Studies by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have documented nutrient depletion in a host of irradiated foods. Thiamin content, for example, is particularly vulnerable to radiation. As in the case of radiolytic products, irradiation's defenders point out that nutrients are lost in other processes, including cooking. However, irradiation is not a substitute for cooking. Furthermore, an ARS study on bacon indicated that "when irradiated bacon was fried, a greater amount of thiamin was lost than would be predicted if the loss was strictly additive." Louria wants all irradiated foods to be tested for vitamin content before and after the recommended irradiation dose and the results printed on the package's label. "They want to sell to everybody -- young kids, people in poverty who may already be vitamin-deficient," he argues. "It shouldn't be let into the marketplace without this information and these tests." Faced with the claims of dueling scientists, how is the layperson to know whom to believe? In the case of food irradiation, the questions of environmental contamination and worker safety may be the best yardstick by which to decide the issue. Irradiation advocates respond to such questions with honeyed paeans to the safety record of the existing medical irradiation industry. The analogy makes sense. Not only is the technology for food irradiation the same as that used to sterilize medical instruments -- cobalt-60 and, less frequently, cesium-137 gamma radiation exposure or electron-beam irradiation -- but, in fact, it is primarily medical irradiation companies that are seeking approval for the irradiation of food in a bid to open new markets. Janet Riley of the American Meat Institute says she has heard of no accidents or safety concerns associated with medical irradiation. Harley Everett of Food Technology Services declares, "Irradiation with cobalt has a spotless environmental record in this country." A pro-irradiation report by CAST, "Radiation Pasteurization of Food," states, "Many commercial irradiation plants exist in the United States and they have established an excellent safety record." Question number seven in a USDA pamphlet, "Ten Most Commonly Asked Questions About Food Irradiation," asks "will my risks of radiation exposure increase significantly if I live next to an irradiator?" The pamphlet's answer? No, because "the use and transportation of radioactive materials... is closely monitored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, state agencies and the Department of Transportation."