Irradiated Food Fight

Radiation has a pretty bad reputation in the general populace. Just the word brings up thoughts of radioactive waste, weapons of mass destruction, bloated military budgets, and science fiction films where irradiated characters are cast in a sickly green glow.

So when consumers have been asked whether they would buy irradiated food -- food that's been treated with radiation to rid it of bacteria such as E. coli -- they often prefer to take their chances on conventional foods, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has estimated that foodborne illnesses cause 325,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths each year.

Our inherent mistrust of radiation has made it easy for critics of irradiated food technology to greatly influence public opinion, publishing document after document that dramatizes the potential hazards and downplays the potential benefits. And because their message reinforces our fears of birth defects, cancer, radioactive leaks and unsanitary food processing, we're often quick to side with consumer activists against irradiation.

Public Citizen, a consumer rights organization started by Ralph Nader, has historically been one of the most vocal and active opponents of irradiated foods. One of its most effective arguments centers around the idea that irradiated food is "filthy food."

Inspectors used to use touch, smell and sight to judge the cleanliness of meat in processing plants. Now, a new pilot program is taking inspectors off the floor and allowing for the speeding up of slaughter lines. Irradiation at the end of the process destroys bacteria, regardless of its source. So, Public Citizen says, if fecal matter, vomit, puss or any other contamination gets into the meat, the inspector won't be on the floor to catch it, and irradiation will destroy the bacteria, even while the source of the bacteria remains in the food.

Irradiation advocates find this argument both ludicrous and inflammatory. But their insistence that regulations for sanitation will remain in place isn't as dramatic as the dire picture of the meat industry run amok. Citing the relaxation of inspection standards as evidence that the meat industry can't be trusted, opponents prey upon our fears of corporate irresponsibility.

They also call into question the safety of irradiated foods. In one public education flyer listing the top 10 reasons why irradiated foods are dangerous, Public Citizen claims that the process creates a new class of chemicals, chemicals that have never existed before and whose long-term impacts can't be accurately predicted.

Cyclobutanones are so prevalent in irradiated foods, and remain at such high levels over time, that they were originally considered a marker to tell whether foods had been through the irradiation process. Public Citizen claims that "research dating to the 1950s has revealed a wide range of problems in animals that ate irradiated food, including premature death, a rare form of cancer, stillbirths, genetic damage, organ malfunctions ... " The list goes on.

Seeking to keep their lead over irradiation advocates, Ian Sitton and Wenonah Hauter of Public Citizen held a press conference in front of the Davis Food Co-op one morning in late fall. They highlighted a new report called "Hidden Harm" that sought to prove that cyclobutanones were created by the irradiation process and had not been sufficiently studied. Though the report is well written and sufficiently alarming, it focuses its attention primarily on proving that these chemicals exist in irradiated foods, without proving that they cause harm.

But then, that's not the point. The point is to cast enough doubt to hold off the approval of new irradiated foods. Currently, ready-to-eat foods and seafood are under consideration by the FDA.

By raising new doubts over the safety of cyclobutanones, and casting doubt on the validity of the FDA's process, Public Citizen is strengthening an argument that includes a long list of other inflammatory statements that are, to one degree or another, true.

They claim that irradiation destroys vitamins, including up to 80 percent of vitamin A in eggs and 48 percent of beta carotene in orange juice. To back up their claims, they cite FDA memorandums.

Even if these numbers are based on extremely high levels of radiation, they're difficult to combat. Advocates admit that some nutritional value is lost, but in most cases, it's very minor. Eating a balanced diet would correct any deficiencies. Cooking, they remind us, also destroys nutritional value. But because they must admit that some nutritional value is lost during the irradiation of some foods, advocates of the technology have a hard time combating consumer concerns.

Public Citizen also claims that irradiation will lead to the globalization of food production, claiming, "because it increases the shelf life of food and utilizes large, centralized facilities, irradiation encourages globalization and consolidation of the food production, distribution and retailing industries."

And perhaps this gets to the heart of the real arguments against irradiation. Public Citizen is very concerned that by not thinking proactively enough, we will throw away the opportunity to create safer, more sanitary, more humane and more responsible ways of growing, processing and shipping foods.

Its war against irradiation seems to come down to believing in a particular vision of the future, where food is produced without relying on centralized plants that are indifferent to the care of the animal, indifferent to issues of sanitation and indifferent to creating a nutritious, tasty food product. And there's validity to that argument. The popularity of farmer's markets and organic foods proves that some people will always prefer to pay top dollar for the cleanest, best-tasting food.

Irradiation advocates can't understand why the same consumers who will pay for organics wouldn't also pay more for the cleanest cut of meat. The Center for Consumer Research on the University of California at Davis campus continues to fight the uphill battle to educate consumers about the potential benefits of irradiation, believing that the benefits far outweigh the risks. Their most compelling argument is that irradiation could potentially wipe out foodborne illness.

Christine Bruhn, the director of Consumer Research, is a strong advocate for the technology. "Have you ever heard someone speak who's lost a child to E. coli?" Bruhn asks over the phone, her voice pained. Like her opponents, Bruhn resorts to graphic and dramatic examples to make her point.

Seven to 10 days after eating contaminated food, says Bruhn, a child develops extreme stomach pain. Then, the child develops diarrhea and begins to bleed internally. "There's nothing to do for these kids," she says. "The lining of the intestine is eaten by the bacteria. These kids suffer strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure ... I can't deal with that."

Advocates have a retort for each argument put forth by groups like Public Citizen, but so far, they're losing the public relations battle.

Unsanitary conditions? Advocates suggest we look at the dairy industry. Has pasteurization made for unsanitary dairies? Just the opposite, they say. Hazards from spills and unsafe working conditions? Sure Beam, the largest irradiator in the country, uses electricity to irradiate. There is no radioactive waste, no threat of spills and no threat to workers. Cyclobutanones? If they caused damage, proof would have emerged during many decades of testing.

While public opposition to irradiation has begun to weaken, especially among those with immune deficiency disorders, irradiated foods are rarely requested by local consumers, so they're rarely available in the Sacramento area, though no one can point to proof that irradiation causes anywhere near as much damage as foodborne illnesses.

Though critics cast doubt over the safety and nutritional value of irradiated foods, advocates of the technology can be found in every sector of food science. Academics, the FDA, the USDA, the American Dietetic Association, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association and others all appear on a list of those who say irradiation is safe. Advocates of irradiation say that it is the most researched food technology in U.S. history, and that it has been found to be perfectly safe through repeated tests here and around the world. The challenge is to get the word out.

Dr. Dean Cliver, professor of food safety at Davis, has been an active advocate of irradiated foods since the 1970s, and he's furious at groups who seek to keep them out of the marketplace. He blames Public Citizen for denying consumers the right to choose by raising fears over issues like cyclobutanones, even though the FDA has known about them for years and never been presented with sufficient evidence that they were dangerous. Like other advocates, he claims that Public Citizen is basically alone in its opposition to irradiation, though most local retailers also reject irradiated foods, consistently waiting until their customers demand them.

As Carolyn Konrad of Raley's said, "If there's no public demand, we won't carry it."

But smear campaigns by consumer groups are only one of the hurdles advocates must clear. Consumers are also alarmed by labeling that puts the emphasis on "radiation," which is likely to repulse consumers who've never even heard of Public Citizen.

Labeling laws insist that when foods have been irradiated, they must carry the radura, the international irradiation symbol, along with a phrase like, "treated with radiation." Advocates believe that these labels have held down the demand for irradiated foods, even though irradiated beef, poultry, pork, eggs, fruits, vegetables and spices have all been approved for sale by the FDA in recent years. Advocates are now resorting to phrases like "cold pasteurization," even though such terms have been deemed "sneaky" and "deceptive" by focus groups around the country, including those held last summer in Sacramento.

While Public Citizen may be winning the public debate against irradiation, Bruhn has recently received funding for an education program that will seek to give consumers the advocate's version of the truth. The Center for Consumer Research will seek to prove that once people understand the benefits of living without the threat of foodborne illness, irradiated food will become the public's choice -- a choice they're willing to pay extra for.

A retailer will be chosen in California as a test market for irradiated foods. At the same time, Bruhn's team will show videos, distribute brochures and otherwise create a squeaky clean image of irradiation to combat the apocalyptic version put forth by Public Citizen.

On both sides, the information will be attractively packaged and the message very carefully prepared.

Will we swallow it?

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