Nuclear Lunch: The Dangers and Unknowns of Food Irradiation
by Susan Meeker-Lowery and Jennifer Ferrara
The recent push for food irradiation fails to acknowledge
the technology’s inherent dangers, its intricate connections to the nuclear industry,
and the FDA’s failure to prove safety.
Beginning in 1986, the FDA has given the green light to expose
nearly our entire food supply to nuclear irradiation. Since then, staunch citizen
opposition has kept the technology out of use. But the recent hamburger recall has
led both the food and nuclear industries to push hard for beef irradiation’s approval.
Its use in the beef industry would open the door to irradiation as the “solution”
to contamination crises in all food groups, from poultry to fruits and vegetables.
With beef irradiation on the fast-track through the FDA process, citizen opposition,
not government regulation, remains the critical component in keeping irradiated food
off store shelves. And from the hazards inherent in the technology to the FDA’s own
admission that the safety studies are flawed, the risks involved with food irradiation
still far outweigh the presumed “benefits.”
Food is irradiated using radioactive gamma sources, usually cobalt 60 or cesium 137,
or high energy electron beams. The gamma rays break up the molecular structure of
the food, forming positively and negatively charged particles called free radicals.
The free radicals react with the food to create new chemical substances called “radiolytic
products.” Those unique to the irradiation process are known as “unique radiolytic
Some radiolytic products, such as formaldehyde, benzene, formic acid, and quinones
are harmful to human health. Benzene, for example, is a known carcinogen.
In one experiment, seven times more benzene was found in cooked, irradiated beef
than in cooked, non-irradiated beef. Some URPs are completely new chemicals that
have not even been identified, let alone tested for toxicity.
In addition, irradiation destroys essential vitamins and minerals, including vitamin
A, thiamine, B2, B3, B6, B12, folic acid, C, E, and K; amino acid and essential polyunsaturated
fatty acid content may also be affected. A 20 to 80 percent loss of any of these
is not uncommon.
Safety Studies Flawed
The FDA reviewed 441 toxicity studies to determine the safety of irradiated foods.
Dr. Marcia van Gemert, the team leader in charge of new food additives at the FDA
and the chairperson of the committee in charge of investigating the studies, testified
that all 441 studies were flawed.
The government considers irradiation a food additive. In testing food additives for
toxicity, laboratory animals are fed high levels (in comparison to a human diet)
of potential toxins. The results must then be applied to humans with theoretical
models. It is questionable whether the studies the FDA used to approve food irradiation
followed this process. In fact, the FDA claimed only five of the 441 were “properly
conducted, full adequate by 1980 toxicological standards, and able to stand alone
in support of safety.” With the shaky assurance of just five studies, the FDA approved
irradiation for the public food supply.
To make matters worse, the Department of Preventative Medicine and Community Health
of the New Jersey Medical School found two of the studies were methodologically flawed.
In a third study, animals eating a diet of irradiated food experience weight loss
and miscarriage, almost certainly due to irradiation-induced vitamin E dietary deficiency.
The remaining two studies investigated the effects of diets of foods irradiated at
doses below the FDA-approved general level of 100,000 rads. Thus, they cannot be
used to justify food irradiation at the levels approved by the FDA.
Other studies indicate serious health problems associated with eating irradiated
food. A compilation of 12 studies carried out by Raltech Scientific Services, Inc.
under contract with the U.S. government examined the effect of feeding irradiated
chicken to several different animal species. The studies indicated the possibility
of chromosome damage, immunotoxicity, greater incidence of kidney disease, cardiac
thrombus, and fibroplasia. In reviewing Raltech’s findings in 1984, USDA researcher
Donald Thayer asserted, “A collective assessment of study results argues against
a definitive conclusion that the gamma-irradiated test material was free of toxic
Studies of rats fed irradiated food also indicate possible kidney and testicular
tumors. One landmark study in India found four out of five children fed irradiated
wheat developed polyploidy, a chromosomal abnormality that is a good indication of
future cancer development.
Irradiation proponents often claim that decades of research demonstrate the safety
of food irradiation, but the studies they use to prove it are questionable. For instance,
their “proof” includes studies completed by Industrial Bio-Test (IBT), a firm convicted
in 1983 of conducting fraudulent research for government and industry. As a result
of IBT’s violations, the government lost about $4 million and six years of animal
feeding study data on food irradiation. Some of this discredited work is still used
as part of the “scientific” basis for assurances of the safety of food irradiation.
Workers in irradiation plants risk exposure to large doses of radiation due to equipment
failure, leaks, and the production, transportation, storage, installation, and replacement
of radiation sources. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has recorded 54 accidents
at 132 irradiation facilities worldwide since 1974. But this number is probably low
since the NRC has no information about irradiation facilities in approximately 30
“agreement states” which have the authority to monitor facilities on their own.
New Jersey is home to the highest concentration of irradiation facilities, and virtually
every New Jersey plant has a record of environmental contamination, worker overexposure,
or regulatory failures. Accidents can be nearly fatal to workers and extremely dangerous
to the surrounding communities. For instance:
In 1991, a worker at a Maryland facility suffered critical injuries when exposed
to ionizing radiation from an electron-beam accelerator. The victim developed sores
and blisters on his feet, face, and scalp, and lost fingers on both hands.
In 1988, Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. (RSI) in Decatur, GA, reported a leak of cesium
137 capsules into the water storage pool, endangering workers and contaminating the
facility. Workers then carried the radioactivity into their homes and cars. Cleanup
costs exceeded $30 million, and taxpayers footed the bill.
In 1986, the NRC revoked the license of a Radiation Technology, Inc. (RTI) facility
in New Jersey for 32 worker-safety violations, including throwing radioactive garbage
out with the trash and bypassing a key safety device. As a result of this negligence,
one worker received a near lethal dose of radiation.
In 1982, an accident at International Nutronics in Dover, NJ, contaminated the plant
and forced its closure. Radiation baths were used to purify gems, chemicals, food
and medical supplies.
In 1974, an Isomedix facility in new Jersey flushed radioactive water down toilets
and contaminated pipes leading to sewers. In the same year, a worker received a dose
of radiation considered lethal for 70 percent of the population. Prompt hospital
treatment saved his life.
Not a Silver Bullet
Irradiation poses serious risks, and it still does not ensure safe meat. Although
it kills most bacteria, it does not destroy the toxins created in the early stages
of contamination. And it also kills beneficial bacteria which produce odors indicating
spoilage and naturally control the growth of harmful bacteria.
Irradiation also stimulates aflatoxin production. Aflatoxin occurs naturally in humid
areas and tropical countries in fungus spores and on grains and vegetables. The World
Health Organization (WHO) considers aflatoxin to be a significant public health risk
and a major contributor to liver cancer in the South.
In addition, irradiation will likely have a mutagenic effect on bacteria and viruses
that survive exposure. Mutated survivors could be resistant to antibiotics and could
evolve into more virulent strains. Mutated bacteria could also become radiation-resistant,
rendering the radiation process ineffective for food exposed to radiation-resistant
Radiation-resistant strains of salmonella have already been developed under laboratory
conditions, and scientists at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge have found
that one bacteria occurring in spoiled meat and animal feces can survive a radiation
dose five times what the FDA will eventually approve for beef. Scientists exposed
the bacteria, called D.radiodurans, to between 10 and 15 kilograys (kGy) of radiation
for several hours -- enough radiation to kill a person several thousand times over.
The bacteria, which scientists speculate evolved to survive extreme conditions of
dehydration, survived the radiation exposure.
The Nuclear Connection
To irradiate beef and poultry in the U.S. on a mass scale, hundreds of irradiation
facilities would need to be built. Currently, the radiation source for most irradiators
is cobalt 60, supplied by the Canadian company Nordion International, Inc. But the
only isotope available in sufficient quantities for large-scale irradiation is cesium
137, which is also one of the deadliest. With a half-life of 30 years, cesium 137
remains dangerous for nearly 600 years.
The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) initially encouraged food irradiation as part
of its Byproduct Utilization Program (BUP) created in the 1970s to promote the commercial
use of nuclear byproducts. The DOE claimed nuclear byproducts “have a wide range
of applications in food technology, agriculture, energy, public health, medicine,
and industrial technology,” and wanted to “ensure full realization of the benefits
of the peaceful atom.”
At the same time, it would transfer the burden of nuclear waste from weapons production
to consumers -- a fact the DOE admitted to the House Armed Services Committee in
1983: “The utilization of these radioactive materials simply reduces our waste handling
problem... we get some of these very hot elements like cesium and strontium out of
Not only would this take care of DOE’s waste problem, it would develop the technology
to reprocess spent nuclear reactor fuel in order to recover cesium 137. the reprocessing
would also enable the DOE to recover plutonium, the main ingredient for nuclear weapons.
After the 1988 irradiator accident in Decatur, Georgia, the DOE stopped actively
promoting food irradiation and the use of cesium 137. But the store of cesium 137
is ready and waiting.
With the FDA’s imminent approval of beef irradiation, the irradiation industry is
poised to use it as a springboard for flooding the market with a new wave of food
irradiation promotion. But to be successful, irradiation proponents must convince
retailers that consumers want the technology. The irradiation industry sees education
or “consumer training” as the key to citizen acceptance.
In response, scientists at major land-grant universities, with the full support of
the USDA, are developing “educational” materials. Iowa State University (ISU), home
of one of two publicly held food irradiation facilities in the U.S., developed a
pro-irradiation educational video with a $39,000 grant from the USDA Extension Service.
The USDA gave grants to projects designed to influence public acceptance of food
technologies, specifically food irradiation.
But citizens don’t want irradiated foods. Surveys conducted in 1990 and 1994 by HealthFocus,
a marketing consulting firm specializing in consumer health trends, found that over
80 percent of consumers were concerned about food irradiation. A study at ISU found
when consumers are given solid arguments both for and against irradiation, acceptance
of the technology is substantially lower than if they were only given the pro-irradiation
side of the story. An August 1997 CBS News poll found nationwide 73 percent of people
oppose it, and 77 percent say they wouldn’t eat irradiated food.
Citizen aversion to irradiation is so strong, no major supermarket chain will carry
irradiated foods, and all the top poultry companies in the nation have stated they
will not adopt the technology. The U.S. government may approve its use, but that
doesn’t mean citizens will believe it’s safe, or that they will buy irradiated food.
Excerpted from the Food & Water report Meat
Monopolies: Dirty Meat and the False Promises of Irradiation by Susan Meeker-Lowery
and Jennifer Ferrara. For a copy of the complete report, contact Food & Water