June 18, 2001-- Squandering an opportunity to set the record straight,
federal officials dismissed numerous concerns about the safety of
irradiated food raised by citizens at a symposium held at the University
of Illinois. Sponsored by the Cancer Prevention Coalition, Friday's
event was the first occasion in recent years that officials from
the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) met citizens face-to-face to discuss food irradiation.
Citizens in attendance sought explanations about why the FDA has legalized food irradiation despite well- documented problems associated with the process. Irradiation can deplete vitamins and nutrients, form chemicals that are known or suspected to cause cancer and birth defects, and corrupt the flavor, texture and odor of food. Dozens of experiments dating to the 1950s have revealed a wide range of serious health problems in animals fed irradiated food. Nonetheless, since 1983 the FDA has legalized the irradiation of beef, pork, poultry, fruit, vegetables, eggs, spices, juice and sprouting seeds.
Friday's symposium featured a presentation by Dr. Vijayalaxmi, whose experiments at India's National Institute of Nutrition during the 1970s revealed genetic damage, fetal deaths, weakened immune systems and low sperm counts in animals that ate irradiated wheat. In one of the few tests ever conducted on people, the Institute discovered genetic damage in children who ate bread made from irradiated wheat.
George Pauli of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, and Donald Thayer of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service dismissed these and many other experimental findings that strongly suggest irradiated food is not safe for human consumption.
"It defies belief that our government can remain in such a severe state of denial," said Samuel Epstein, M.D., chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and emeritus professor of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois' School of Public Health. "Every man, woman and child who takes a bite of irradiated food increases their chance of getting cancer. It is no exaggeration to say that our government has turned the American people into guinea pigs."
Epstein co-authored an article that appeared earlier this year in the International Journal of Health Services in which 26 prominent doctors and researchers, as well as consumer, health and environmental protection leaders, issued an urgent warning about the dangers of irradiated food.
The article's other co-author, Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, said: "In the face of so much evidence that irradiated food could be harmful, one can hardly overstate the gross negligence that the FDA has displayed over the past 20 years. The FDA must stop rolling the dice with the health of the American people."
FDA and USDA officials dismissed many other concerns raised Friday, including:
- Recent German studies found that a chemical formed in certain irradiated foods caused genetic damage in rats and in human cells. The chemical, called 2-DCB, is an irradiation byproduct of palmitic acid, a fat that virtually all foods contain. The chemical itself does not occur naturally in any food. Despite these and many other studies that have revealed hazardous chemical byproducts of irradiation, the USDA's Thayer denied the existence of such evidence.
- One-third of the studies published in peer-reviewed scientific journals that looked at the question of genetic damage caused by irradiated food showed genetic damage in animals, humans or cell cultures.
- The head of the FDA panel that reviewed more than 400 food irradiation studies in the 1980s later revealed that none of them were properly conducted. And, all seven of the key studies that the FDA relied upon to legalize food irradiation did not meet modern scientific protocols.
- In addition to the studies conducted by Vijayalaxmi, the FDA has dismissed numerous other studies that revealed serious health problems in animals that ate irradiated food.
- The synergy between irradiation and cooking can, in the words of a USDA report, result in "empty calorie" food.
- Irradiation is being embraced by the food industry as a way to mask filthy conditions in factory-style slaughterhouses and processing plants. Because it greatly extends the shelf life of food, irradiation is also being embraced by multinational corporations as a way to move food production operations to developing nations, a trend that has already financially imperiled multitudes of American farmers and ranchers.
In one of the few instances in which citizens' concerns were acknowledged, a high-profile representative of the food irradiation industry said that irradiated food should be properly labeled. Michelle Marcotte of Ion Beam Applications, a Belgian company whose American subsidiary operates several irradiation facilities, said that consumers should have the right to know that food has been irradiated so that they can make informed buying decisions.
Also speaking were representatives from the Northeast Council of Food Inspection Locals and the Center for Food Safety. And, University of Virginia physics Professor Donal Day spoke about the potential that irradiation could induce radioactivity in food. Among the food industry representatives who declined invitations to speak were former Minnesota state epidemiologist Michael Osterholm and executives of Titan/ SureBeam, a defense contractor that now sells irradiation equipment.
For more information on the Cancer Prevention Coalition, visit
For more information on Public Citizen, visit www.citizen.org/cmep.