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Irradiation’s food for thought 

Remember "cold fusion"? It sounded too good to be true. And sure enough, say most scientists today, there was no heat or light at the end of that tunnel.

            Now meet "cold pasteurization." This is one term of art --- "electronic pasteurization" is another --- for what's usually called food irradiation.

            The concept of purifying by irradiation may be simpler than the nomenclature: You simply expose the food to a potent source of radioactivity to kill the bad stuff in it. (Not forever: Irradiation, however thorough, does not prevent the growth of microbes, molds, and the like, on food afterward.)

            But there's a nagging question: Does irradiation also kill off nutrients and food safety?

The matter may be on your dinner table right now. Some spices and other ingredients have been irradiated for years. But now food irradiation is coming to Rochester in a really big way, via one product and a strong advertising campaign.

            This past May, Wegmans supermarkets started stocking up with Wegmans Brand Irradiated Fresh Ground Beef. The new product is the successor to a similar irradiated hamburger from Fairview Farms, which Wegmans started selling just a year earlier.

            Rejecting the euphemisms, Wegmans has been openly marketing its store-brand hamburger under the term "irradiated." In fact, the company's putting a positive spin on the term. A Wegmans' fact sheet (see at www.wegmans.com) says irradiation is "a new step in food safety." But there's a gesture to history: The US Food and Drug Administration, says the fact sheet, "has evaluated [irradiation] over the last 40 years." The time lag reflects some historical complications. Like commercial nuclear power, food irradiation grew from the "Atoms for Peace" mentality of the 1950s.

            Irradiation is the shotgun approach to stopping food from doing what it does naturally (spoiling during storage) and what is done to it unnaturally (for example, picking up fecal contamination at the packinghouse).

            Today lots of foods are nuked, and we don't mean microwaved.

            The federal government okayed irradiation of wheat and wheat flour in 1963. Irradiation of spices, poultry, and certain fresh produce came in due course. By the late 1990s, the Agriculture Department and the Food and Drug Administration had opened the pasture gate pretty wide: In 1999, for example, the feds allowed raw beef, pork, and lamb to be irradiated.

            Whatever the food, the idea is the same. Radioactive waves and particles --- in doses millions of times higher than with an ordinary chest x-ray --- kill a range of pathogens in the food and alter certain biochemical processes. For example, high radiation levels can eliminate salmonella, listeria, and the intestinal bacterium E. coli (a dangerous form called O157:H7) from raw beef. Radiation also can stop white potatoes from sprouting, and bottled spices from turning into insect nests.

            Sometimes the food is "treated" by exposing it to high radiation levels from cobalt-60 or cesium-137. Cobalt-60 is familiar from its medical uses; with a half-life of a little over 5 years, it decays to harmlessness in 50 to 100 years (that is, 10 to 20 half-lives; scientists and activists disagree over how to gauge a radioactive isotope's "hazardous life.") Cesium, a byproduct of nuclear fission, is an environmental pollutant with approximately a 30-year half-life. That means cesium-137's "hazardous life" runs up to 600 years.

            However, the use of long-lived radioisotopes may be giving way to the "electron beam" method of irradiation, which may go down easier in terms of production safety and consumer acceptance. The beam, powered by electricity, does not produce radioactive waste, nor does it have a material connection with commercial nuclear waste --- like the spent fuel from nuclear power plants that may soon move across our roads and railways toward Yucca Mountain, Nevada.

Here at home, Wegmans is plowing ahead confidently with its irradiated meat.

            "For people who want safe ground beef," says corporate spokesperson Mary Ellen Burris, "this makes sense." The safety angle addresses the pitfalls of traditional cooking: As Burris says, there have been many educational campaigns to get people to cook their ground beef to an internal temperature of at least 160 degrees F --- enough heat to kill troubling pathogens like E. coli O157:H7. But cooks sometimes miss the mark, or their hankering for rare meat outweighs the health considerations.

            Then there's the question of sanitation: If animals were raised and "processed" (slaughtered and butchered) in squeakingly clean surroundings, and if fecal matter and other contamination were kept away from the fresh meat, E. coli and the like wouldn't be such a problem. "We agree that in a perfect world, it would be great to have that," says Burris.

            E. coli haunts some "CAFOs," concentrated animal feeding operations, in which thousands of cattle, pigs, or laying hens are kept in far-from-idyllic conditions --- and where the handling of excrement is an industrial-strength task. (Perhaps the most famous local CAFO is the Wegmans-owned farm in Wolcott, Wayne County, where hundreds of thousands of caged hens lay eggs for the whole Wegmans chain.) But other places can harbor E. coli. "You find it on small farms and in petting zoos," says Wegmans' chief food scientist, Kathleen O'Donnell.

            Some consumers may think that processed meat makes a simple journey from pasture to store. But not so. For one thing, pasture-roaming, grass-fed cattle have given way to CAFO-prodded, corn- and antibiotic-fed feedlot animals. For another thing, food products of all sorts often are transcontinental and international travelers.

            Mary Ellen Burris tells how Wegmans' irradiated ground beef gets from there to here. The meat, she says, is packaged in a Kansas plant run by Excel Corporation. From Kansas, the product moves to Chicago, where it's processed with electron-beam irradiation at a plant run by the San Diego-based SureBeam Corporation. From there the ground beef moves east to Wegmans stores in several states.

            (A note on Excel: According to the Washington Post, in 1999-2000 USDA inspectors cited the company's Fort Morgan, Colorado, plant for certain "defects," including "repetitive fecal findings on product." Burris and Kathleen O'Donnell say such things don't apply to the Kansas plant; and Excel, they say, has been using newer methods like "steam vacuuming" to keep things clean.)

            Why doesn't Wegmans buy beef close to home? "We've not bought beef in New York State for as long as I can remember," says Burris. New York, she says, is not a big beef producer. Indeed, in 1998, says the state Department of Agriculture and Markets, New York ranked 34th of 50 in production of cattle and calves.

            It all comes down to cost. Food is "as cheap as it is," says Burris, because of economies of scale.

            Yet Wegmans also markets a higher-priced beef product that avoids some of what goes into the irradiated beef. Burris says the chain's "Food You Feel Good About" beef is produced "with traditional methods." This beef, she says, gives concerned shoppers "a personal choice."

Activist Judy Braiman's choice is to avoid irradiated foods. More than that, Braiman, who's with the Empire State Consumers Association, wants Wegmans to drop its new ground beef.

            "What we're really asking is what safety testing has been done on the product," says Braiman. "Our issue," she says, "is not animal rights or vegetarianism, it's safety, it's cleaning up the industry. They're zapping dirty meat, and we're getting sanitized feces or pus."

            Braiman says she's not indicting the whole industry. But she and the groups she's working with have a comprehensive critique of irradiation.

            For example, last December two Washington-based watchdogs, Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety, issued a report on irradiated food and its "potential dangers." The report, Hidden Harm, concentrates on "unique chemicals" in irradiated foods, and some dangers that result from such chemicals. (Irradiation advocates don't deny that chemical changes occur. Wegmans' Kathleen O'Donnell says "radiolytic compounds" will be found is some treated foods. She likens these to the "thermolytic compounds" in foods cooked at high temperatures. "None of the changes," she says, "have been found to be dangerous.")

            Some radiolytic substances are common things like formic acid or glucose. But there are other things on board. Hidden Harm says that "when certain fats commonly found in food are irradiated, the resulting byproducts include a unique class of chemical called cyclobutanones." These chemicals, says the report, "have never been found to naturally occur in any food." Peter Jenkins, policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety and co-author of Hidden Harm, says cyclobutanones have been found to cause "mutagenic and possibly carcinogenic effects in animals."

            And there's more.

            Citing studies from the University of Massachusetts and the German government, Public Citizen says that lab animals fed irradiated food have suffered cancer, vitamin deficiencies, and premature death. Irradiation, says a fact sheet from the group, can destroy vitamins, fatty acids, beta carotene, and change the food's flavor and texture. "Irradiation disrupts the chemical composition of everything in its path," the fact sheet concludes. (Proponents argue that traditional cooking does things like this, too --- but when, say, irradiated meat is prepared over a grill, it's being cooked a second time, multiplying the chances for chemical change.)

            Peter Jenkins maintains that "there's not enough evidence" today to state confidently that irradiation is safe. He says the FDA and other agencies have "misinterpreted" some older evidence while failing to digest some newer findings.

            Jenkins concedes that the "ion-beam approach is better" than the use of cesium-137 and the like. The beam, he says, can't be used as a weapon or furnish the raw radioactive material for a "dirty bomb." But the ion beam, he says, has the same effects on food as other irradiation methods.

            "I wouldn't eat irradiated beef," says Jenkins, "and I especially wouldn't feed it to my children."

Speaking of Food Irradiation, Wegmans

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