Proponents of the irradiation process æ in which gamma rays or electrons are used to kill potentially toxic food bacteria, such as salmonella æ know that they will continue to lose in the court of public opinion as long as the technology's name evokes images of thermonuclear meltdown more than food safety. That's why Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an outspoken irradiation advocate, pushed a provision through last year's Farm Bill, directing the Food and Drug Administration to use a less threatening term: "electronic pasteurization."
Prior to the Farm Bill's passage, school districts were barred from purchasing irradiated meat, even though it has been available to the general public since 1999. The Farm Bill empowered public school districts to purchase irradiated meat, but to do so, they would have to go outside the U.S. Department of Agriculture's school-lunch commodities program æ the food source for most districts.
The commodities program continues to adhere to pre-Farm Bill specifications prohibiting the purchase or sale of irradiated beef to schools. But the USDA is in the process of changing those specifications, with the possibility that irradiated meat will join the commodities program as soon as this fall. The issue looms as a battleground for irradiation opponents.
"This is what this fight is all about," says Tony Corbo, legislative representative for the consumer-advocacy group Public Citizen. "It's a spec that's on the contract specifications that USDA puts out to companies. If they want to bid on selling commodities to the school-lunch program, they have to meet these specifications. So right now, if the school districts participate in the commodity program, they will not be buying irradiated meat."
Up to this point, food-service directors at local school districts have chosen not to venture outside the USDA's commodities program, and they don't seem particularly eager to experiment with irradiation.
"My feeling on irradiated meat is that it may take away whatever bacteria may grow, but at the same time there's a negative effect too, because you don't know what it could possibly do to a child," says Patricia Martinez, director of quality assurance for the San Antonio Independent School District. "So it has its pros and cons, but I would feel safer, working in food service and with kids, that we would never have to deal with something like that."
"For all our beef, we go through USDA commodities," says John Thomas of the Judson Independent School District. "And this next year, we're going to get pre-cooked commodity meat. As far as irradiation goes, we haven't been dealing with that."
For activists like Corbo, the government's approval of irradiation has come prematurely, before the technology's effects have been tested conclusively.
"When the Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation back in the '80s, it failed to follow its own testing protocols," Corbo says. "Irradiation is considered to be a food additive by the FDA. The reason for that is when you irradiate foods, especially those that have high fat content æ like meat æ it creates new chemicals, chemicals that don't exist in the environment naturally. So you really need to test these chemicals on laboratory animals."
Corbo says what little experimentation has been done on irradiation has been unsettling. He points to recent irradiation studies by German scientists, in which laboratory animals were injected with chemicals produced by irradiated food, and developed cancer and genetic defects.
"Mind you, these scientists had been proponents of irradiation," Corbo says. "And they've determined that before there's any expansion of the foods that have been approved for irradiation, further study is needed." —