International Journal of Health Services
PREVENTING PATHOGENIC FOOD POISONING: SANITATION NOT IRRADIATION
Samuel S. Epstein and Wenonah Hauter
Bacterial food poisoning can be readily prevented by long overdue basic sanitary
The food and nuclear industries, with strong government support, have capitalized on recent outbreaks of pathogenic E.coli 0157 meat poisoning to mobilize public acceptance of large scale food irradiation. Already, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is allowing the use of high-level radiation to "treat" beef, pork, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, flour and spices, while the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposes the imminent irradiation of imported fruit and vegetables.
Caving in to powerful corporate industry interests, both House and Senate Appropriations Committees have recently proposed to sanitize the FDA's already weakened labeling requirements for irradiated food by eliminating the word "irradiated" in favor of "electronic pasteurization" (1); this term was proposed by the San Diego based Titan corporation, an erstwhile major defense contractor using highly costly linear accelerator "E-beam" technology, originally designed for President Reagan's "Star Wars" program, which shoots food with a stream of electrons travelling at the speed of light. However, the proposed electronic pasteurization label is a euphemistic absurdity, especially since the FDA's approved meat radiation dosage of 450,000 rads is approximately 150 million times greater than that of a chest X-ray, besides circumventing consumers' fundamental right to know.
Furthermore, the new labeling initiative is reckless. Irradiated meat is a very different product from cooked meat. Whether irradiated by linear accelerators or pelletized radioactive isotopes, the resulting ionizing radiation produces highly reactive free radicals and peroxides from unsaturated fats. U.S. Army analyses in 1977 revealed major differences between volatile chemicals formed during irradiation or cooking meat (2). Levels of the carcinogen benzene in irradiated beef were found to be some tenfold higher than cooked beef. Additionally, high concentrations of six poorly characterized "unique radiolytic chemical products" admittedly "implicated as carcinogens or carcinogenic under certain conditions," were also identified (2).
Based on these striking changes in the chemistry of irradiated meat, FDA's 1980 Irradiated Food Committee explicitly warned that safety testing should be based on concentrated extracts of irradiated foods, rather than on whole foods, to maximize the concentration of radiolytic products (3). This would enable development of sufficient sensitivity essential for routine safety testing. In 1984, Epstein and Gofman more specifically urged that "stable radiolytic products could be extracted from irradiated foods by various solvents which could then be concentrated and subsequently tested. Until such fundamental studies are undertaken, there is little scientific basis for accepting industry's assurances of safety" (4). In an accompanying editorial comment, FDA was quoted as admitting that "it is nearly impossible to detect (and test radiolytic products) with current techniques" on the basis of which the agency's claims of safety and regulatory abdication still persist (5).
While refusing to require standard toxicological and carcinogenicity testing of concentrated extracts of radiolytic products from irradiated meat and other foods, FDA instead has relied on some five studies selected from 441 published prior to the early 1980's, on which its claims of safety still remain based. However, the chair of FDA's Irradiated Food Task Committee which reviewed these studies insisted that none were adequate by 1982 standards (6), and even less so by the 1990's (7). Furthermore, detailed analysis of these studies revealed that all were grossly flawed and non-exculpatory (8).
These results are hardly surprising since a wide range of independent studies prior to 1986 clearly identified mutagenic and carcinogenic radiolytic products in irradiated food, and confirmed evidence of genetic toxicity in tests on irradiated food (9). Studies in the 1970's, by India's National Institute of Nutrition, reported that feeding freshly radiated wheat to monkeys, rats, mice and to a small group of malnourished children induced gross chromosomal abnormalities in blood or bone marrow cells, and mutational damage in the rodents (10).
Food irradiation results in major micronutrient losses, particularly vitamins A, C, E, and the B complex (11). As admitted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agriculture Research Service, these losses are synergistically increased by cooking, resulting in "empty calorie" food (12); this is a concern of major importance for malnourished populations. Radiation has also been used to clean up food unfit for human consumption, such as spoiled fish, by killing odorous contaminating bacteria.
While the USDA is strongly promoting meat and poultry irradiation, it has been moving to deregulate and privatize the industry by promoting a self-policing Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) control program (13); in late 2000, the agency will start a rulemaking process to privatize meat inspection. Moreover, the Department of Energy (DOE) continues its decades long aggressive promotion of food irradiation as a way of reducing disposal costs of spent military and civilian nuclear fuel by providing a commercial market for cesium nuclear wastes.
Irradiation facilities using pelletized isotopes pose risks of nuclear accidents to communities nationwide from the hundreds of facilities envisaged for the potentially enormous radiation market; in contrast to nuclear power stations, these facilities are small, minimally regulated, unlikely to be secure, and require regular replenishment of cobalt (Co-60) or cesium (Cs-137) isotopes, entailing nationwide transportation hazards. Furthermore, linear accelerators, besides plants using radioactive isotopes, pose grave hazards to workers and are subject to virtually no regulation (9, 14).
The track record of the irradiation industry is, at best, unimpressive. Robert Alvarez, former DOE Senior Policy Advisor, recently warned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission files are bulging with unreported documents on radioactive spills, worker over-exposure, and off-site radiation leakage (15). Strangely, the Environmental Protection Agency has still failed to require an Environmental Impact Statement prior to the siting of food irradiation facilities.
The focus of the radiation and agribusiness industries is directed to the highly lucrative cleanup of contaminated food rather than to preventing contamination at its source (16). However, E. coli 0157 food poisoning can be largely prevented by long overdue improved sanitation. Feedlot pen sanitation, including reducing overcrowding, drinking water disinfection and fly control, would drastically reduce cattle infection rates. Moreover, E. coli 0157 infection rates could be virtually eliminated by feeding hay, rather than the standard unhealthy starchy grain diet, for seven days prior to slaughter (17). Sanitation would also prevent water contamination from feed lot run off, incriminated in the recent outbreak of E. coli 0157 poisoning in Walkerton, Ontario (18); run off will remain a continuing threat even if all meat was irradiated.
Pre-slaughter, post-knocking and post-evisceration sanitation at meat packing plants is highly effective for reducing carcass contamination rates (16). Testing pooled carcasses for E. coli 0157 and Salmonella contamination is economical, practical, and rapid. The expense of producing sanitary meat would be trivial compared to the high costs of irradiation, including possible nuclear accidents, which would be passed on to consumers. Additional high costs are likely to result from an anticipated international ban on the imports of irradiated U.S. food, and also from losses of tourist revenues.
We charge that support of the "electronically pasteurized" label by the food and radiation industries, governmental agencies, and Congress, is a camouflaged denial of citizen's fundamental right to know. Rather than sanitizing the label in response to special interests, Congress should focus on sanitation and not irradiation of the nation's food supply.
Note - This article is largely based on a June 6, 2000 P.R. Newswire press release by the Cancer Prevention Coalition and Public Citizen.
Robert Alvarez, Former Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of Energy and Executive
Director the STAR Foundation
Direct reprint requests and further endorsements to:
Dr. Samuel S. Epstein