The international symbol of irradiation (Courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture)
Irradiating fruits, vegetables and meats with as much as 15 million times the energy of a single chest X-ray kills disease-causing germs and extends the shelf life of foods. But is irradiation safe and should consumers know when their food is treated? Living on Earth host Steve Curwood discusses the issue with Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a health scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union.
CURWOOD: For more than 40 years, a small part of the food supply in the U.S. has been treated with powerful radiation. Irradiation can kill off dangerous microbes, extend the shelf life of foods and reduce spoilage. And by federal law, foods that have been zapped must be labeled. But public apprehension about radiation has limited the demand for food that carries the irradiated label. Now the Food and Drug Administration is proposing sweeping changes that would relax labeling requirements. We’d hoped to speak with the FDA, but officials there declined to discuss the matter until the public comment period for the new regulations ends on July 3. We turn now to Urvashi Rangan. Dr. Rangan is an environmental health scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. She’s also Director of Greener Choices dot org. Hi there!
RANGAN: Hello, Steve.
CURWOOD: What is the current requirement for foods that are irradiated?
RANGAN: The current labeling requirement is that if a food is irradiated, then it has to be labeled as such. So whether it’s a fruit, or a vegetable, or a meat product, all foods that are irradiated are supposed to be labeled as such. I have to say in the past many years, we’ve noted foods that are irradiated and you don’t see a label on it. But that is the regulation and the requirement right now.
CURWOOD: So, what changes is the FDA proposing here and why?
RANGAN: Well the FDA, actually, has been petitioned sort of relentlessly in the past decade by people in the industry who want to use irradiation but don’t always want to label it as that. The proposed changes allow for a few things. One they would allow for food that had been irradiated not to be labeled as irradiated, especially where there’s no change in say, something like taste. The other major change would allow companies to substitute other label claims in place of irradiated.
CURWOOD: For example?
RANGAN: For example electronic pasteurization is a term that’s been proposed by the industry. They would like to use the term electronically pasteurized or cold pasteurized instead of labeling something as irradiated. Then it certainly begs the question as to why that’s happening. We know just from our recent survey in June 2007, 71 percent of consumers don’t particularly want to buy irradiated products so that can certainly lead one to believe that they’re looking for other terms maybe to hide something, maybe not.
CURWOOD: Now, to be clear irradiating food doesn’t make it radioactive, right?
RANGAN: Let’s be clear about that, that is correct. When you irradiate food it does not make it radioactive. But it is helpful to understand that for example the maximum dose of irradiation on meat is about 4.5 kiloGrays this is the unit of irradiation. And that’s equivalent to about 7 million chest X-rays. So, for a package of meat that’s a lot of energy, and a lot of X-rays to try to get these bacteria pathogens killed on the meat. The other thing though to bring up, is that in the case of meat and other irradiated products that have fat in it, that irradiation seems to cause a very unique what we call radiolytic byproduct, but it’s specific to irradiation. It changes the fat into something called 2-alkylcyclobutanones, or 2-ACBs, and those things when put into rats seem to cause cancer tumors in their colon. And, so we certainly seem to think more research needs to be done in terms of really understanding the safety of irradiation, especially when it comes to irradiating products like meat. It may also be of interest to the listeners to know that in Europe irradiating meat is illegal because of those concerns about irradiated fat.
CURWOOD: So, we’ve had some tragedies around food poisoning particularly involving meat but also involving produce. To what extent would irradiating food improve consumer safety?
RANGAN: Well, we took a look at that question a few years ago at Consumer Reports and um here’s, what we found out. We actually looked at irradiated meat and tested over 800 samples of ground meat. And we found that, while irradiation certainly lowered the levels of bacteria on those products, that they didn’t always kill all of the bacteria in which case the products were probably safer, but they weren’t necessarily safe. It really comes down to understanding why we’re irradiating products in the first place and that’s to control filth. Have we taken all steps to manage the filth problem throughout the process? What we know with meat production, certainly is that it’s a very dirty process from the beginning. A number of farms simply don’t have hygiene standards to follow and that’s where these bacteria start. We think the cleaning up needs to start at the beginning and then lets see how we do at the end and what additional measures we really need to take.
It also may be of interest, and it’s a slightly unappetizing thought to know, that meat that is unfit for sale, that is so contaminated that it would be illegal to sell it, can actually be stored, irradiated and then sold to the public after that. And that’s a very big concern for us because what it does is it can mask bad hygiene problems. It can mask the fact that food was very dirty in the first place. And consumers can unknowingly buy food that was previously so contaminated that it would have been illegal to be sold.
CURWOOD: Wait a second. You’re telling me that spoiled meat can be zapped and then sold?
RANGAN: That’s right.
CURWOOD: Stuff that I would throw out of my refrigerator?
RANGAN: Stuff that you would throw out of your refrigerator. Stuff that the stores might throw out because it’s gone bad. The fact of the matter is at the processing plant if that meat is so dirty that it doesn’t pass USDA inspection standards, you can hold the meat, irradiate it, and then sell it to consumers.
CURWOOD: So, how does this stuff taste once it’s been zapped?
RANGAN: Well, when we tested irradiated beef in 2003 our taste testers found that it tasted like singed hair. And in the industry they’ve also termed it as “wet dog hair.” So, it’s rather unappetizing and it seems to be these changes in the fat specifically that seem to cause the off taste in irradiated foods with fat.
CURWOOD: And under this proposed rule change, this irradiated food could be sold to us without a label telling us it had been irradiated.
RANGAN: One of the proposals is that if there’s no change in taste that then the company could go forth and sell it without an irradiation label. And that’s simply erroneous and deceptive frankly. And it’s dependent on so many things like how much irradiation was used. And who’s tasting the stuff anyway to make that judgment call? It brings up a lot of questions as to how they would standardize something like that. And frankly we believe that it’s erroneous reasoning in terms of drawing the line between foods that should be labeled as irradiated and foods that aren’t. We think that all foods that are irradiated should be labeled as such.
CURWOOD: Urvashi Rangan is an environmental-health scientist and policy analyst at Consumers Union and Director of Greener Choices dot org.
As we mentioned earlier, the FDA refused our request for an interview to talk about its proposed labeling changes for irradiated food during a public comment period that ends on July 3. You’ll find a link to the FDA’s proposal, the Consumer Reports study, and other related resources at L-O-E dot ORG.
[Efterklang “Chapter 6” from ‘Tripper’ (The Leaf Label – 2004)]
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.
Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.
Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth