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Administration Proposal to Serve Irradiated Beef to School Children Poses Cancer, Genetic and Other Risks Warns Samuel S. Epstein, M.D.

CHICAGO, April 8, 2001. — The recent proposal by the Bush Administration to allow irradiated ground beef into the National School-Lunch Program will endanger the health of tens of millions of school children and should be withdrawn immediately.

"The government's assertion that irradiated food is safe for human consumption does not even pass the laugh test," states Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., emeritus professor of environmental medicine at University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago. "Exposing America's school children to the hazards of irradiated food is reckless negligence, compounded by the absence of any warning to parents".

Irradiated meat is a very different product than natural meat. This is hardly surprising as the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) approved irradiation dosage of 450,000 rads is approximately 150 million times greater than that of a chest x-ray. Apart from high levels of benzene, new chemicals known as "unique radiolytic products" were identified in irradiated meat in U.S. Army tests in 1977 and recognized as carcinogenic. Later tests identified other chemicals shown to induce genetic toxicity. In sharp contrast to FDA's claims of safety, based on grossly inadequate testing which fails to meet the agency's minimal standards and which were explicitly rebutted by its own expert committees, there is well-documented scientific evidence that eating irradiated meat poses grave risks of cancer and genetic damage. Irradiated meat is also highly susceptible to cross-contamination with food poisoning bacteria.

Nevertheless, the meat and irradiation industries, with FDA's complicity, are lobbying aggressively to sanitize the agency's weak labeling requirements for irradiated meat and other food by eliminating the word "irradiated" in favor of "electronic (or cold) pasteurization". This euphemistic absurdity would circumvent consumer's fundamental right-to-know.

Furthermore, irradiation masks grossly unsanitary conditions in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. Irradiation is thus a major disincentive to decades-long overdue basic sanitary practices essential for the prevention of Salmonella, E.coli O157, and other pathogenic food poisoning. While irradiation kills most bacteria in meat, pork and poultry, it does nothing to prevent gross fecal and other contamination.

Warnings on the hazards of irradiated food were endorsed in a recent publication, in the world's leading peer-reviewed public health journal, by a wide range of national and international experts including:

  • Dr. Neal Barnard, President, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Washington, D.C.
  • Dr. John Gofman, Emeritus Professor, Molecular and Radiation Biology, University of California, Berkeley, California
  • Dr. Jay M. Gould, Director, Radiation and Public Health Project, U.S.A.
  • Dr. Vyvyan Howard, Professor of Pathology, University of Liverpool, U.K.
  • Dr. David Kriebel, Professor of Epidemiology, University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Massachusetts
  • Dr. Marvin Legator, Professor of Preventive Medicine, University of Texas, Galveston, Texas
  • Dr. E. Lichter, Professor of Community Medicine, University of Illinois Medical School, Chicago, Illinois
  • Dr. William Lijinsky, former Director, Chemical Carcinogenesis, Frederick Cancer Research Center, Maryland
  • Dr. Sheldon Margen, Emeritus Professor of Public Health Nutrition, University of California, Berkeley, California
  • Dr. Vicente Navarro, Professor of Health and Public Policy, The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland, Professor of Political and Social Sciences, Universitat Pompeu Fabra, Spain
  • Dr. Herbert Needleman, Professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Robert Rinehart, Emeritus Professor of Biology, San Diego State University, California
  • Dr. George Tritsch, Cancer Research Scientist, Roswell Park Memorial Institute, New York State Department of Health, New York
  • Dr. Quentin Young, past President, American Public Health Association, Chicago, Illinois

CONTACT: Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., emeritus professor environmental and occupational medicine, University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago, and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, 312-996-2297, email:

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