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.

"Minnesota farmers and ranchers already aren't getting enough money for their meat to cover their basic production costs," says Ronnie Cummins, director of the Pure Food Campaign, a nonprofit run from Little Marais. "All the profits are being obtained by the retail chains and the middlemen like Cargill, IBP, and ConAgra." Cummins predicts that the people with the money to build massive irradiation plants won't be small family farmers. And this, he worries, will concentrate power even more strongly in the hands of the beef monopolies.

It's estimated that irradiation will cost around 5 cents a pound, putting further price pressure on small beef operations. "Farmers are getting next to nothing today, and the situation can only be remedied by paying farmers a fair price for clean meat reasonably and humanely produced--not by paying beef cartels for irradiation," says Cummins. "Consumers and farmers would both be better off if people paid twice as much for their meat and ate half as much. We've got an obese, malnourished population which we're now serving with counterfeit freshness. It's a symbol of how far things have fallen."

Adds Michael Colby, executive director of Pure Food and Water, a Walden, Vermont-based nonprofit, "Irradiation is part of an industrial food plan that forces farmers to get big or get out."

Other farmers worry that since irradiation increases meat's shelf life, demand for meat will actually go down, since supermarkets could offer meat as fresh for far longer and will dispose of less.

Whether we'd be eating sterilized filth is another issue that needs to be addressed. "The biggest concern is that companies would say, 'We can be sloppy now.' Consumers don't want sterile fecal matter on their food," says Michael Jacobson, executive director for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. In their book Food Irradiation, Who Wants It?, the center's researchers document several cases of food companies, located in places where irradiation is more common, using the process to conceal bacterial contamination. In those cases, food that should have been thrown out as bad ended up being irradiated and sold as fresh.

There are also fears that irradiated meat could well lead to a false sense of security. Radiation at the levels prescribed means eliminating more than 99 percent of bacteria on meat, but even the small amount remaining can regenerate under proper conditions and cause all the old problems. (Irradiation doubters often falsely call these "radiation-resistant" bacteria, which makes them an easy target for pro-irradiation scientists. Any bacteria can be killed with enough radiation, but that degree of radiation will also destroy the meat.) If the food-service industry is already sloppy with meat it knows isn't sterile, what new problems will arise when it's working with meat it thinks is safe?

Dr. Donald B. Louria, chairman of the department of preventative medicine and community health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey-NJ Medical School, acts as a consultant in infectious diseases at Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases in New York City. He thinks that the "unanswered questions about nutritional loss and potential chromosome damage" that swirl around irradiation need to be answered posthaste. Even the FDA admits that a significant number of nutrients are removed during the irradiation process, including thiamine, folic acid, and vitamins A, B2, B3, B6, B12, C, E, and K, in addition to essential polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Irradiation proponents argue that vitamins are lost through cooking anyway, and it's not as though we're a nation suffering from malnutrition. But Louria disagrees. "I think this notion that we're a wealthy country and don't need all these vitamins is very glib," he says. The nation's "36 million poor people aren't getting redundant vitamins, and 25 to 50 percent of the elderly not on supplemental vitamins show a deficit in one of the major vitamins" as well. "I'm as concerned as anyone about infectious diseases, but there are many, many concerns that need to be addressed before you impose a new technology. In point of fact the disadvantages could seriously outweigh the advantages."

Like many people who have reservations about irradiation, Louria questions the data on which FDA approval for irradiation was based. "I think that the FDA data was A, flawed, and B, at the very least showed that irradiating with large doses can damage the nutrient value of the food." The two studies on which FDA approval of irradiation were based, he adds, are conflicting. "Neither was done in the United States and we need to do one in the United States, not on animals but on people."

Marcia van Gemert was the toxicologist at the FDA in charge of evaluating irradiation and all food additives when the current push toward ever-more-vast irradiation was initiated. She rarely grants interviews and says since leaving the FDA she has "tried very hard to stay out of it," since the fight about irradiation has left the laboratories for the more fractious world of politics and commerce. She does say openly that "at the time we were not happy with the data. The data was very poor. My constant concern was for radiolytic products."

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