By MARK WORTH
Don't blame Tom Harkin for being fooled. He was just trying to tell a good story.
On a fall day back in 1985, Harkin, newly elected Democratic senator from Iowa, told his former colleagues on a House subcommittee about how, while serving as a Navy jet pilot during the 1960s, he lived on pork that had been treated with radiation, ostensibly to make it safer to eat by killing harmful bacteria.
"I can remember eating some processed meat -- I think it was bacon or ham -- that had been irradiated and kept on the shelf in a vacuum-sealed package. I think it was preserved for seven years," Harkin told the panel, which was debating a food irradiation bill at the time. "We ate it, and I had never heard of such a thing. I thought to myself at the time, 'Why aren't we pursuing things like this?'"
Harkin's fascination surely would have been doused had someone leaned over and told him that in 1968, the year after he left the Navy, it was revealed that rats fed irradiated food by military scientists died younger, gained less weight, and apparently grew more tumors than rats fed normal food.
Later that fall day, the House subcommittee heard an American Medical Association official proclaim that using radiation to rid food of bacteria "is not a public safety hazard, and I can't emphasize that strongly enough."
Too bad no one was there to remind the fellow that just a year earlier, he wondered in a memo to his AMA colleagues whether irradiated food might harm the offspring of animals (not to mention humans) who eat it, create mutant radiation-resistant bacteria, or sicken people who eat the stuff for long periods of time.
Since that hearing in 1985, Americans have been fooled time and time again -- by government bureaucrats, and food and nuclear industry executives trying to sell irradiation as a way to kill E. coli, Salmonella and other food-borne pathogens, while extending the shelf life (and, thus, the global market reach) of meat, fruit, vegetables, spices and prepared foods such as TV dinners and baby food.
Like salespeople, though, they're not telling the whole truth. Information that could help citizen/consumers make better decisions -- information about how irradiation depletes nutrients in food, causes health problems in laboratory animals, spawns mutant life forms, kills beneficial microorganisms, turns some food rancid, marginalizes already struggling family farmers, encourages the proliferation of nuclear technology, and masks filthy slaughterhouse conditions that foul meat with feces, urine, and pus -- has been craftily excised from the public debate.
While an all-out scientific and philosophical war is being waged over genetically engineered food, federal officials and corporate interests such as Kraft, Tyson and Wal-Mart are quietly attempting to legalize and commercialize an under-tested, over-hyped technology -- which claims to make food safer by zapping it with the equivalent of tens of millions of x-rays -- that could pose just as many dangers to the public. If not more.
Though it was fully 100 years ago that an MIT professor discovered that radiation could be harnessed to kill bacteria in food, it wasn't until the 1950s -- under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace initiative (which also promised that nuclear power would be "too cheap to meter") -- that food irradiation began to nudge toward the mainstream. But once the procedure started to gain popularity, it didn't take long for problems to crop up.
That pork that a young Tom Harkin ate when he was in the Navy? Turned out it might not have been safe after all. Military-sponsored tests yielded all sorts of nasty problems in lab animals fed irradiated food. A short time later, three executives of the firm hired by the military to research irradiation during the 1970s were convicted of doing fraudulent work. No matter. The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) continued to allow potatoes and wheat flour to be irradiated and fed to the public.
Then came the innocuous-sounding Byproducts Utilization Program, under which the federal Department of Energy (DOE) started hunting around for places to pawn off deadly waste from its nuclear installations -- such as the radioactive cesium-137 wallowing at the nuclear bomb factory at Hanford, Washington (arguably the most polluted place in the Western Hemisphere).
With the government's blessing -- if not its encouragement -- the private sector started to get into the act. Given the spotty record of companies using radiation to sterilize medical supplies, however, one wonders how the government could have allowed them to start irradiating food. From 1974 to 1989, there were 45 recorded accidents at US irradiation plants. Among the worst:
* In 1977 a worker at the Radiation Technology plant in Rockaway, New Jersey, received a near-fatal dose of radiation, after which company president Martin Welt ordered staffers to give false information to federal investigators. After some 32 violations for such offenses as throwing out radioactive garbage with the regular trash, Welt was forced to resign (though the government soon after hired him as a $100-an-hour consultant and he eventually started another irradiation company.)
* In 1982 cobalt-tainted water was flushed down the public sewer system at the International Nutronics plant in Dover, New Jersey, leading to the federal conviction of a company executive who tried to cover up the incident.
* From 1985-99 the Neutron Products plant in Dickerson, Maryland was cited for 192 safety and other violations. The place was so hot with radiation that a company vice president's contaminated clothes set off an alarm at a New York nuclear plant he was visiting in 1988.
* In 1988 a Hanford-harvested capsule of cesium-137 sprung a leak at the Radiation Sterilizes plant in Decatur, Georgia. The ensuing cleanup cost taxpayers more than $45 million.
Government officials and industry execs still hold out hope that cesium-137 will find a niche in the food irradiation market, despite the Decatur disaster -- and despite the deaths of four people in Goiania, Brazil, whose bodies were buried in lead-lined caskets after they mistakenly handled radioactive cesium in 1987.
If irradiation plants sound scary, listen to what happens to food when it's blasted with gamma rays, electrons or x-rays.
For starters, dozens if not hundreds of formal studies conducted over the past 40 years -- all rejected by the FDA as being poorly done -- have revealed serious health problems in lab animals fed irradiated food. You name it -- shorter lifespans, low birth weight, kidney damage, immune and reproductive problems, chromosomal abnormalities, tumors. If it could go wrong, chances are it did.
In one of the few recorded studies conducted on people, Indian researchers discovered in the mid-1970s that malnourished children fed freshly irradiated wheat developed polyploidy, a defect in the chromosomes of blood cells. (FDA officials triggered an international incident by rudely discounting the study, going so far as to publish false information in the Federal Register.)
What's worse, irradiation -- with all of its deadly unknowns -- creates an entire new class of mysterious compounds by literally smashing apart the chemical bonds in food and sending electrons flying all over the place. Even though these "unique radiolytic products" -- as well as well-known toxins such as formaldehyde, benzene, and formic acid that irradiation can produce -- have mutagenic and carcinogenic potential, government officials have not come close to adequately studying how they could harm people. And, irradiation can stimulate the creation of carcinogenic aflatoxins in grains and toxic solanine in potatoes, the latter of which sent 17 English boys to the hospital in 1979.
What's worse still, vitamins and nutrients take a beating under the onslaught of irradiation, destroying up to 95 percent of vitamin A in chicken, 86 percent of vitamin B in oats, and 70 percent of vitamin C in fruit juices. Essential amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids can be depleted as well.
A host of other unintended consequences can result, including onions that turn brown on the inside and meat that smells like a wet dog, the elimination of such beneficial microorganisms as the yeasts and molds that help keep botulism at bay, and the possible mutation of bacteria into forms resistant to radiation.
Without exception, FDA officials -- for one reason or another -- have chosen to ignore the piles of research suggesting that irradiating food may be problematic. But that's not the half of it. The government has built its entire case in support of irradiation on a mere five studies -- none of which were done after 1980 -- that officials not-so-enthusiastically said two decades ago "do not appear" to indicate the process is potentially harmful.
Moreover, since the FDA began stepping up its approval of the food and nuclear industries' irradiation requests in 1983 -- beginning with a request by the infamous Martin Welt to irradiate parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and other seasonings -- no significant research has been done on whether the process is safe for the additional food groups and at the higher doses. For instance, FDA officials, who said in 1982 that irradiating food with 1 kiloGray of radiation was probably safe, have little or no idea whether it's safe to irradiate beef and lamb with 7 kiloGrays, which the agency approved in 1997.
The government, as is often the case, should know better. The feds ignored the concerns of one of their own experts, former high-ranking FDA scientist Marcia van Gemert, who cautioned back in 1982 that no long-term studies had been done on irradiated food likely to become a significant part of people's diet.
Van Gemert's warning is as timely as ever. At this writing, the FDA is considering a proposal from the powerful National Food Processors Association to irradiate ready-to-eat food such as TV dinners and luncheon meat. The agency has also provisionally allowed pre-packaged food to be blasted with electrons (or "e-beam"), even though US Food Safety and Inspection Service chief Thomas Billy wrote that "we have no data specifically supporting the assumption" that the procedure is safe.
Donald Louria, chair of preventive medicine and community health at the New Jersey University of Medicine, has been raising red flags about the dangers of food irradiation for more than 10 years. And he's still as worried as he's ever been: "Until the industry is willing to agree to nutritional studies on each type of irradiated food and to put the results on the label, and until there is a proper study of the potential chromosomal damage of irradiation, we should not be irradiating our foods."
Slowing -- much less stopping -- the government-blessed, corporate-bankrolled food irradiation movement is a tall order, to say the least.
This spring, Wal-Mart -- the largest retailer on Earth with $160 billion in annual sales -- began test-marketing irradiated meat to its customers. Wal-Mart is buying the products from meat-packing giant IBP, which zapped them at an e-beam facility in Sioux City, Iowa, operated by Titan Corp., an erstwhile defense contractor notorious for its polluted iron plant in Keasbey, New Jersey. Titan is also irradiating meat for Tyson, Cargill-owned Excel, and Philip Morris-owned Kraft, among other major players in the ever-consolidating, ever-globalizing meat industry.
Corporate giants are also showing up on the research end of things. For instance, work at the Illinois Institute of Technology, one of the nation's leading irradiation research installations, is funded by Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Kraft, Nestle, and Pepsico. And, many "food safety" advocacy groups throwing their weight behind irradiation are actually industry front organizations. The corporate-funded American Council on Science and Health, for example, is chaired by A. Alan Moghissi, whose anti-environment and anti-consumer positions include fighting the removal of asbestos from schools and proclaiming that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing for the agriculture industry.
Funny, the food industry hasn't always been unified in its support of food irradiation. Just seven years ago, the editors of Meat & Poultry magazine took the technology to task, warning that it should not be embraced as a panacea to protect people from contaminated food. "To think we can literally cram irradiation down the throats of consumers because it is the 'right' answer to our problems," the editors wrote, "is to step on the opinion of the very people we depend on for survival."
With industry and the government evangelizing in unison for food irradiation, it is, in fact, only the consumers can stop this under-tested, over-hyped technology from being crammed down their throats.
Mark Worth is senior researcher at Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. Those interested in voicing their concerns about food irradiation can contact:
Wal-Mart: 1-800-966-6546 (ext. 3) or 1-800-WAL-MART
Donna Shalala, Secretary, US Department of Health and Human Services: 202-619-0257 or 1-877-696-6775
Thomas Billy, administrator, US Food Safety and Inspection Service: 202-720-7025
For more information on food irradiation, call Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program at 202-546-4996, or visit www.nonukedfood.org.
Civic leaders, concerned citizens and Wal-Mart customers on May 2 urged Wal-Mart not to test-market irradiated meat in its Supercenters.
Food irradiation is a process where food is exposed to high levels of radiation in order to kill bacteria and extend shelf life for up to 35 days. While proponents of the process state that irradiation will make food safer, no one really knows the health impacts of eating irradiated food.
"We oppose food irradiation because it merely masks the problem of poor meat processing practices that leave meat contaminated with feces, urine and pus," said Marquette MyCue, a local community leader in health related issues, in a news conference at the Fayetteville Hilton. "At a minimum, Wal-Mart should warn consumers of the dangers of irradiated meat with labels that state irradiation does not kill all bacteria, that it destroys important vitamins and enzymes, and that it leads to the formation of potentially carcinogenic chemicals in food."
"Irradiation translates into big profits for Wal-Mart, but something entirely different for consumers," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project. "Corporate agribusiness has convinced the government to abandon its protective role, allowing companies like Wal-Mart to use food irradiation to extend the shelf life of meat beyond what is appropriate and mask the unhygienic conditions in which animals are raised, slaughtered and processed."
Most American consumers share the views expressed at the news conference. A 1999 poll commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons and Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 88.6 percent of Americans want labels to indicated food has been irradiated. A 1997 CBS News poll found that 77 percent of Americans would not buy irradiated food.
Another problem with irradiated meat is the threat to small farmers in the United States as well as around the globe. Family farmers and small food producers are finding it impossible to compete economically with corporate factory farms. The extended shelf life resulting from irradiation will enable foreign meat producers to drive the small American farmer out of business.
The body of research on irradiated food is sketchy at best and has yielded conflicting results. There are no studies on the long-term health effects of irradiated food on humans. Among the unknowns: whether irradiation has different effects on frozen food as compared to fresh food; how irradiation affects irregularly shaped foods; its effects on helpful bacteria; and the effects of irradiation on plant workers who oversee the treatment of food.
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) documents, a 1982 FDA review of 413 studies found 344 to be inconclusive or inadequate to demonstrate either the safety or toxicity of irradiated foods, while 32 indicated adverse effects and 37 showed the procedure to be safe.
In February, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) legalized the irradiation of raw meat and meat products such as ground beef, steaks and pork chops. The government declared food irradiation safe by using mathematical calculations supported by just five animal studies conducted primarily in the 1960s and 1970s that were of questionable quality.
Under the USDA's labeling requirements, meat served in such places as restaurants and cafeterias will not have to be labeled, so consumers will have no idea when they are eating irradiated meat. However, irradiated meat sold in stores must be labeled as such.