Let Them Eat Shit

Minnesota beef producers can begin using radiation to kill bacteria and extend the shelf life of everything from hamburger to filet mignon. But a number of scientists, scrappy idealists, and small farmers still say it's not a good idea.

Now that the Star Tribune has run a big color photo showing the Minnesota Beef Princess, tiara-crowned head held high, cradling a heaping platter of irradiated burgers; now that state epidemiologist Mike Osterholm has come out firmly in favor of irradiating meat; now that Gov. Arne Carlson has included money for consumer "education" about irradiation in his 1998 budget proposal, you'd think the controversies about irradiated meat had gone gently into their good night.

Wrong. They're seething like a pile of last month's room-temperature ground chuck.

Which drives epidemiologist Osterholm crazy. "The real story on irradiation is that there are so many myths, misconceptions, and, frankly, outright lies being spread about it," he says. "The media has tried very hard to supply a balanced approach, and in a way that balance is completely inappropriate. If you were doing a story on whether the earth was round or flat, the media would line up six people who believe the earth is round and six who believe the earth is flat, and try to make some sort of compromise position. But that doesn't make the earth flat."

Unfortunately, those flat-earthers have quite a few worries about irradiation that simply can't be ignored. Irradiation is the process whereby food is exposed to either gamma rays, provided by nuclear-waste-derived bars of cesium 137 or cobalt 60, or by an electron beam that works much like an X-ray machine. The food does not become radioactive through this process, although the radiation beef is exposed to is equivalent to that of more than 10 million chest X-rays. Irradiation was approved last month by the federal Food and Drug Administration for use on red meat, a move heralded by many as the sure way to prevent food-poisoning tragedies like the four Jack in the Box deaths of 1993, or last year's Hudson Foods scare.

Dr. George Tritsch, a retired cancer researcher who spent a lifetime working at both the New York Department of Health and Roswell Park Memorial Institute, believes the greatest worry about irradiated beef has to do with carcinogens, like benzene and formaldehyde, which form in the meat during irradiation.

"When you hit proteins with irradiation you get formaldehyde, a known mutagen, and benzene," Tritsch explains. "Benzene is bad business. The FDA did tests for acute toxicity--whether irradiated food would kill you fast--but the problem with mutagens is they could take 30, 40 years to do their damage." Irradiation of beef could well lead to increases of lymphoma and possibly colon cancer, he adds.

Alarmingly, long-term experiments to learn the effects of these mutagens can't be done: Traditionally, food-additive tests are performed by feeding animals enormous portions of the additive being tested, not just the amount that would be present in the food. However, with irradiated food it's impossible to increase the amount of mutagens in the food since greater doses of radiation don't increase the number of mutagens, but simply destroy the food. "Even if your increased chance of lymphoma is only one in a million that's too high," says Tritsch. "Mutagenesis in man, not in experimental animals, takes decades. And if the whole [food poisoning] thing can be prevented by careful cooking, the alternative [irradiation] looks extremely dangerous. I don't want to eat it."

Of course, every beastie in your food can be killed by thorough cooking: trichinosis, salmonella, even the dreaded E. coli O157:H7--the deadly E. coli variant responsible for the Jack in the Box deaths and others. E coli are ordinarily friendly bacteria that live in animals' digestive tracts and aid in food digestion, but this variant releases deadly toxins in the digestive system and can cause kidney failure and even death. E. coli O157:H7 lives in some cows' digestive tracts, in their feces, and in the digestive tracts of some birds. It has also been found on some berries grown in Central America. Most spices are already irradiated before they enter the United States, and it seems likely that all imported fruits and vegetables will soon be irradiated, too.

E. coli can get onto the outside of meat during slaughter, though many argue that it could be eliminated by steam-cleaning or sodium-dipping carcasses. While many irradiation advocates explain that no amount of inspection will change the fact that E. coli is microscopic and therefore essentially invisible, it's clear that in last year's Hudson Foods scare, inspection standards had a great impact. The carefully watched, high-quality line of beef that Burger King used remained clean and safe while Hudson's faster, cheaper production process created infested meat. Food irradiation cheerleaders say it's a coincidence that a drop in the number of meat inspectors, from 12,500 in 1974 to 7,500 today, has occurred during the same time period that food-safety concerns have increased.

The only way you can get E. coli from meat, forbidding some freak meeting between your sandwich and a cow pie, is to have an inadequately cooked burger laced with cow feces. E. coli can't survive high cooking temperatures, so even the rarest steak, if it hasn't been pierced by something during processing, can't transmit E. coli once all the surfaces are seared and cooked. The beef industry isn't limiting itself to irradiating chopped meat, though. If it builds the irradiation plants, it intends to irradiate everything that comes down its conveyor belt, to extend meat's shelf life.

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