PREVENTING PATHOGENIC FOOD POISONING: SANITATION, NOT IRRADIATION*

by Samuel S. Epstein, MD, and Wenonah Hauter

Bacterial food poisoning can be readily prevented by long overdue basic sanitary measures rather than by ultra hazardous irradiation technologies.

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 U.S. Department of agriculture (USDA) proposes the imminent irradiation of imported fruit and vegetables.


. . . the proposed "electronic pasteurization" label is a euphemistic absurdity, especially since the FDAís approved meat irradiation dosage of 450,000 rads is approximately 150 million times greater than that of a chest X-ray, besides circumventing consumersí fundamental right to know.

Caving in to powerful corporate industry interests, both House and Senate Appropriations Committees have recently proposed to sanitize the FDAís weak labeling requirements for irradiated food by eliminating the word "irradiated" in favor of "electronic pasteurization"; 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 Reaganís "Star Wars" program, to shoot food with a stream of electrons traveling at the speed of light. However, the proposed "electronic pasteurization" label is a euphemistic absurdity, especially since the FDAís approved meat irradiation dosage of 450,000 rads is approximately 150 million times greater than that of a chest X-ray, besides circumventing consumersí fundamental right to know.

Furthermore, the new labeling initiative is reckless. Irradiated meat is a very different product from cooked meat. Whether the meat is irradiated by linear accelerators or by 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 the volatile chemicals formed during irradiation and during the cooking of meat. Levels of the carcinogen benzene in irradiated beef were found to be some tenfold higher than in 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.


Levels of the carcinogen benzene in irradiated beef were found to be some tenfold higher than in cooked beef.

Based on these striking changes in the chemistry of irradiated meat, the FDAís 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. This would allow development of sufficient sensitivity 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 industryís assurances of safety." In an accompanying comment, the 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 agencyís claims of safety persist.

While refusing to require standard toxicological and carcinogenicity testing of concentrated extracts of radiolytic products from irradiated meat and other foods, the FDA instead has relied on some five studies selected from 441 published prior to the early 1980s, on which its claims of safety are still based. However, the chairperson of the FDAís Irradiated Food Task Committee, which reviewed these studies, insisted that none were adequate by 1982 standards, and even less so by 1990s standards. Furthermore, a detailed analysis of these studies revealed that all were grossly flawed and non-exculpatory.


Food irradiation results in major micronutrient losses, particularly in vitamins A, C, and E and the B complex. As admitted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service, these losses are synergistically increased by cooking, resulting in "empty calorie" food; this is a concern of major importance for malnourished populations

These results are hardly surprising given that a wide range of independent studies before 1986 clearly identified mutagenic and carcinogenic radiolytic products in irradiated food and confirmed evidence of genetic toxicity in tests on irradiated food. Studies in the 1970s by Indiaís National Institute of Nutrition reported that feeding freshly irradiated wheat to monkeys, rats, and mice and to a small group of malnourished children induced gross chromosomal abnormalities in blood and bone marrow cells, and mutational damage in the rodents.

Food irradiation results in major micronutrient losses, particularly in vitamins A, C, and E and the B complex. As admitted by the USDA Agricultural Research Service, these losses are synergistically increased by cooking, resulting in "empty calorie" food; 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.


. . . the Department of Energy 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.

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 control program; in late 2000, the agency will start a rule-making process to privatize meat inspection. Moreover, the Department of Energy 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 irradiation market; in contrast to nuclear power stations, these facilities are small, minimally regulated, and unlikely to be secure and they 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.


. . . the Nuclear Regulatory Commission files are bulging with unreported documents on radioactive spills, worker overexposure, and off-site radiation leakage. Strangely, the Environmental Protection Agency has still failed to require an Environmental Impact Statement before the siting of food irradiation facilities.

The track record of the irradiation industry is, at best, unimpressive. Robert Alvarez, former senior policy advisor in the Department of Energy, recently warned that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission files are bulging with unreported documents on radioactive spills, worker overexposure, and off-site radiation leakage. Strangely, the Environmental Protection Agency has still failed to require an Environmental Impact Statement before the siting of food irradiation facilities.

The focus of the irradiation and agribusiness industries is directed to the highly lucrative cleanup of contaminated food rather than to preventing contamination at its source. However, E. coli 0157 food poisoning can be largely prevented by long overdue improved sanitation. Feedlot pen sanitation, including reduced overcrowding, drinking water disinfection, and fly control, would drastically lower cattle infection rates. Moreover, E. coli 0157 infection rates could be virtually eliminated by feeding hay, rather than the standard unhealthy starchy grain, for seven days prior to slaughter. Sanitation would also prevent water contamination from feedlot runoff, incriminated in the recent outbreak of E coli 0157 poisoning in Walkerton, Ontario; runoff will remain a continuing threat even if all meat is irradiated.

Pre-slaughter, post-knocking, and post-evisceration sanitation at meat packing plants is highly effective for reducing carcass contamination rates. 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 with the high cost of irradiation, including possible nuclear accidents, which would be passed on to consumers. Additional high costs are likely to result from an expected international ban on the imports of irradiated U.S. food, and also from losses of tourist revenues.


. . . food poisoning can be largely prevented by long overdue improved sanitation. . . . The expense of producing sanitary meat would be trivial compared with the high cost of irradiation . . .

We charge that the support of the "electronic pasteurization" label by the food and irradiation industries, governmental agencies, and Congress is a camouflaged denial of citizenís fundamental right to know. Rather than sanitizing the label in response to special interests, Congress should focus on sanitation, not irradiation of the nationís food supply. _______________

*Epstein, Samuel S. and Wenonah Hauter, "Preventing Pathogenic Food Poisoning: Sanitation, Not Irradiation," International Journal of Health Services, 31(1):187-92, 2001.

Permission to republish was granted by the International Journal of Health Services .

This article contains 18 references and 44 endorsements. To obtain these references and endorsements, contact NOHA, P. O. Box 380, Winnetka, IL 60093.

Article from NOHA NEWS, Vol. XXVI, No. 2, Spring 2001, pages 2-3.