Is irradiation rational?
Food Safety have petitioned the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
to ban irradiated ground beef.
Included in their petition were the results of recent lab tests conducted at the request of the two groups that detected chemicals linked to cancer promotion and genetic damage in irradiated ground beef sold at a restaurant and three grocery stores. The test findings are contained in a report released this week entitled What's in the Beef?
This marks the first time since the FDA began regulating irradiated foods in 1958 that the agency has been petitioned to ban an irradiated food product. Legalised in 1997, irradiated ground beef is reportedly on sale at more than 5,000 grocery stores and restaurants in the United States. The federal government recently lifted its ban on serving irradiated hamburgers to schoolchildren.
"If you're going to permit irradiated meat on grocery store shelves and school lunch trays, you need to be certain that the product is safe - and no study has been able to adequately demonstrate that long-term health won't be affected," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's critical mass energy and environment programme. "The FDA has the responsibility to keep these potentially hazardous products off the market."
Added Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center for Food Safety said: "Given the new toxicity questions, our children simply should not be fed irradiated hamburgers in school. Allowing our national school lunch program to distribute this irradiated meat would be to use 27 million children as unknowing guinea pigs to test the safety of these products."
The two groups purchased and tested three types of irradiated ground beef. Samples of fresh ground beef and cooked ground beef were irradiated with an electron-beam irradiator by food technology firm SureBeam, while frozen ground beef patties were irradiated with a gamma-ray irradiator by Food Technology Service.
According to the two organisations, all three types of irradiated ground beef tested positive for 2-alkylcyclobutanones, or 2-ACBs, which are formed when commonly occurring fats are exposed to radiation. Both bodies claim that these chemicals have never been detected in any non-irradiated foods. In the tests, cooking the irradiated beef in a skillet until it was brown on both sides generally reduced the amount of 2-ACBs but did not eliminate the chemicals. Again, it is claimed that no 2-ACBs were detected in non-irradiated ground beef samples, whether raw or cooked.
This issue has awoken concerns in the European Union. Recent experiments funded by the EU determined that 2-ACBs promoted the growth of colon tumors in rats and caused genetic damage in human cells. In addition to raw and cooked ground beef, 2-ACBs have been detected in other foods that the FDA has legalised for irradiation, including chicken, eggs and mangoes.
"Consumption of an improper diet, together with food that contains 2-ACBs, which act as a tumor promoter, can increase the risk for the development of colon cancer," said Professor William Au of the department of preventive medicine at the University of Texas. "Without a systematic investigation in the population, this serious concern has not been addressed yet."
However, this view is not shared by everyone. Advocates of irradiation claim that the process makes food safer by elminating harmful bacteria. "Dangerous substances do not appear in foods when irradiated as approved," says a statement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Surebeam's website. "This is clearly shown by extensive studies on the effects of irradiation on food, and on the animals and people eating irradiated food."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, 76 million Americans suffer illnesses from food-borne diseases leading to 325,000 hospitalizations and more than 5,000 deaths annually.
The Grocery Manufacturing Association's director of scientific and nutrition policy, Lisa Katic, also believes that feasrs over irradiation are overplayed. "Acceptance of milk pasteurisation was long delayed because of fear mongering and misinformation," she said. "We should not let that happen with food irradiation."
The report on 2-ACBs from Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety has been released as part of an international effort to raise public awareness of food irradiation. A network of consumer, public interest and citizen groups is holding a series of educational events, rallies and protests this week to recognise the global impacts of food irradiation.