Hot Lunch

When Bill Myers and other residents of Point Arena, California, heard last winter that the US Department of Agriculture was planning to send irradiated meat to school lunchrooms, there was a bit of a panic. The school board quickly floated a preemptive ban on any irradiated food.
“We thought they were going to start sending irradiated food as early as January of this year,” said Myers, president of the school board in this small town in  Mendocino County.
In February, the school board approved the ban by a vote of four to two, despite a 90-minute presentation by an advocate of food irradiation from UC Davis, brought in by the two board members who voted against the ban.
The Point Arena school board became one of only a handful of school districts in the country, including Berkeley, that have passed policies or resolutions against irradiated foods. Now, Public Citizen, a national advocacy group, is looking to replicate that action across the nation — in advance of reported USDA plans to make irradiated food available next year through its school lunch supply programs. “If school districts banned  it, that would not only send a message  [of consumer resistance] to the USDA,” said Public Citizen’s Tracy Lerman, “it would also keep the foods out of the lunchroom.”
The issue of food irradiation raises passions on both sides. Critics like Myers and Lerman see a potentially serious lack of safety testing and long-term data. Advocates like Christine Bruhn, the UC Davis professor who made the presentation to the Point Arena school board, champion irradiation as a technology that can save the thousands of lives lost every year to food poisoning from pathogens like  E. coli and Listeria.
Irradiation does not involve any of the complex genetics or potential ecological impacts of genetically engineered crops, but it is just as much a product of industrial farming. And, compared to most of those technologies, it seems to offer both more immediate benefits — fewer children dead from E. coli poisoning — and more immediate dangers: Will meat processors throw caution to the wind on the assumption that they can zap away impurities? Does irradiation create toxic substances in foods, as some studies suggest? And will food irradiation, which also stretches shelf life exponentially, hasten the flood of cheap imported fruits and vegetables?
Studies on the use of radiation to treat food go back at least to the late 1970s, and experts on both sides parade an array of apparent proof that irradiation is either dangerous or wholesome. As far as both the USDA and the US Food and Drug Administration are concerned, food irradiation is both completely safe and potentially a great boon for food safety — but they say the same thing about big agribusiness’s millions of acres of genetically altered crops. Bruhn, who has a grant from the USDA both to study consumer attitudes on irradiation and to promote the technology, sees the issue one way: “My mind is made up firmly about this because I have heard from families who have lost family members because of ground beef contamination,” she said. “I don’t want that to happen  to anyone.”
But to critics like Public Citizen and Dr. Samuel Epstein, chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition at the University of Illinois-Chicago, the issue is not so simple. While Bruhn insists that the scientific consensus is overwhelmingly in favor of food irradiation, studies both here and in Europe have suggested that it might reduce nutritional value and create “unique radiolytic compounds,” which be carcinogenic. In response to such concerns, the European Union in spring  2002 delayed new international standards allowing irradiation, pending more  safety studies.
Targeting Beef
Meat is the current target of food irradiation (dried spices and herbs have been irradiated for years). Last year saw two of the largest meat recalls in history, after tainted meat got out of packing plants and onto supermarket shelves all over the country. The pathogen E. coli O157:H7, the most dangerous strain and the one most often found in beef, causes some 73,000 infections and 61 deaths annually in the US, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the Denver Post, the massive Swift slaughterhouse in Greeley, Colorado, which under its previous owner ConAgra had the largest beef  recall ever last year, is pushing irradiation as a solution: irradiate any meat suspected to contain E. coli, and it won’t make anyone sick.
That this is most likely true is small comfort to Paul Johnson, acting chairman of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, the union representing federal meat inspectors. The union has come out strongly against irradiated food.
Johnson explained that you find E. coli in meat that’s contaminated with manure. He spelled out his objection to irradiation plainly: “It doesn’t take the shit out of there, it just sanitizes it. And who wants to eat sanitized shit?”
Certainly not Samuel Epstein, of the University of Illinois. Epstein explains that, in his view, none of the many studies done on irradiation have sufficiently examined long-term nutritional effects, nor have they followed standard practices for discovering whether a substance causes cancer — extracting the suspected carcinogens, concentrating them, and feeding them to lab animals.
“You’re dealing with a complex of  carcinogenicity problems, nutrition problems, and genetic damage, and industry has not published a single peer-reviewed study refuting these findings, period.  Period. Period,” Epstein said. “What the industry wants is to maintain its horrid slaughter lines, its horrid feedlot conditions.”
Enforcing basic sanitation is becoming increasingly difficult for federal meat inspectors like Paul Johnson. Public Citizen obtained a memo the USDA sent out to inspectors last year warning them not to stop slaughter lines unless they can visually verify contamination: “You are responsible for the time the line is off. Remember, YOU are accountable for the very serious responsibility of stopping the company’s production for the benefit of food safety.”
Marketing Irradiation
While Epstein dismisses pro-irradiation claims as industry propaganda, UC Davis’s Christine Bruhn just as quickly brushes aside criticism as anti-science fear-mongering. She believes that if people are just given the right information, they’ll see things her way: “It’s to enhance safety, and that’s really why I’m involved at all. It can actually save lives.”
Dairy Queen has become the first restaurant chain to publicly market irradiated beef. Current labeling requirements require consumer notification only in supermarkets; restaurants are not required to notify customers if they sell irradiated foods. But in test markets around Minnesota, Dairy Queen chose to use brochures, posters, and buttons touting the safety of their burgers. A company spokesman told Terrain that burger sales have remained steady (especially among people who eat at Dairy Queen two to four times a month), and the company hopes to expand its marketing campaign nationwide.
The USDA’s school lunch program looks to be the next target. Last year’s Farm Bill stipulated that the USDA cannot exclude foods treated with any approved food safety technology, including irradiation, from its subsidized school lunch supply program. Cindy Schneider, in the USDA’s Sacramento office, would say only that the school lunch program was looking into the technology and had no set schedule for making it available. In any case, the USDA has said irradiated meat will be segregated, giving the school districts a choice. Several school districts in Minnesota were considering irradiated meat for their cafeterias this past spring.
But Bruhn’s audience in Point Arena remained solidly against irradiation.
To Tracy Lerman at Public Citizen, that was a triumph of truth over marketing. Lerman points out that Bruhn is actually a professor of consumer science. Bruhn’s main goal is to find a way to make irradiation acceptable to consumers — even if that means calling it “cold pasteurization” or “electronic pasteurization,” both of which are, strictly speaking, misnomers, since pasteurization  is specifically sterilization with heat.
Irradiation and the Global Food System
Other dangers of food irradiation are, like those of genetic engineering, the long-term implications for our dysfunctional corporate food system. Not only can irradiation let slaughterhouses worsen already horrendous conditions, but it may also make the import of fresh fruits and vegetables even cheaper and easier than it is now. Irradiation can increase shelf-life of strawberries from three days to 14.
Brazil has positioned itself to become a major exporter of irradiated produce. In 2001, the US irradiation firm SureBeam struck a deal with a Brazilian company to build a network of 32 food irradiation facilities across the country. “Brazil is where the crosshairs are for the irradiation industry,” said Patty Lovera, from Public Citizen’s Washington, DC office. “Even a US agricultural official told us that irradiation is necessary to do the kind of trade in food that’s talked about in free-trade treaties.”
To Bruhn, more shelf life means more availability and lower prices for shoppers everywhere. Irradiation might even be the replacement of choice for the highly toxic pesticide methyl bromide, used to fumigate some exports. Methyl bromide, a significant greenhouse gas, is slated to be banned under the Montreal Protocol, unless the Bush administration gets its way [see p. 22].
Irradiation advocates even tout their technology as the only feasible replacement for methyl bromide, but Gay Timmons, a consultant for California Certified Organic Farmers, dismisses that idea, given the vibrant and growing export trade in organics. “[Organics] have very good control systems,” she said. Foods can be heated, frozen, or put in a chamber filled with nitrogen — killing all oxygen-breathing pests. “It’s not brain surgery. There are numerous options.”
But if irradiation is not necessary for pest control or for food safety, then the only advantages left are freakishly long shelf-life and the ability to sanitize manure-tainted hamburgers right in the box. And those are advantages only for the big growers and meat packers — for industrial agriculture itself.
With foods already traveling an average of 1,500 miles from farm to table, and with US net farm income at its lowest point since the 1980s farm crisis, the specter of the globalization of lettuce, carrots, and raspberries is cold comfort at best.

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