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.

"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."

Radiolytic products are the unpredictable molecules created when food is broken down by radiation and forms electronically charged molecules or atoms which then re-form into bigger molecules. "If you take a chemical and zap it once and get one break, that's one thing. If you zap it 100 times that's another thing. The molecules get crazier and crazier, they're broken apart and put back together in ways that the body has never seen before. These are chemicals that are unique and it's difficult to tell how the body is going to react to them." Van Gemert says that one of the difficult parts of being an FDA toxicologist is that "unfortunately you don't always have a full pot of information on which to make judgements," even when judgements must be made.

Yet scientists such as Mike Osterholm still consider all of the above concerns, except those about nutrient loss, to be at best superstitious flimflam. Osterholm insists that food irradiation is one of the most studied subjects of our day, and points out that the astronauts eat irradiated food, and they're all fine.

Perhaps more than anyone in the state, Osterholm has a unique and urgent view of why meat irradiation would be desirable: He's been at the bedside of children who've died from E. coli O157:H7; he's watched the ravages of kidney failure, the bloody diarrhea, the agonizing pain. Today the Centers for Disease Control say 1,000 children a year develop kidney failure because of E. coli O157:H7 and 3 to 5 percent die. So when Osterholm calls irradiation "ionization pasteurization," when he scoffs at irradiation opponents and blames them for contributing to a public-health crisis, it's hard not to sympathize.

Which still doesn't mean you have to eat irradiated meat. For one thing, you might not even want to. Marian Burros, a food writer for the New York Times, is one of the few people who isn't involved with the beef industry or irradiation research to have actually tried a variety of irradiated meats. She was not impressed. "While the chicken and pork were OK--although the chicken was very dry--the beef is another story," she says. "There's a terrible odor with the ground beef. It's horrible. Even after you cook it that odor remains and the taste is slightly off." Burros describes the odor as that of a barnyard, or of a wet "steamed cow." While she thinks that it might taste all right buried under ketchup, pickles, and the works, the "off" taste isn't one that most people will accept in their kitchens.

Even if you put up with the taste, you may never understand the science. Steven Sapp, an associate professor of sociology at the State University of Iowa at Ames, has been working with consumers for several years to determine their reactions to irradiated food. "Most persons are not going to understand the physics and biology of it, they just have to know who to trust," he says, pointing out that it's easy to play into fears about government and big-business conspiracies, and that dozens of organizations--the World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, and the American Medical Association, among others--have endorsed food irradiation.

The final step? "The consumer has to make a decision of who is correct," says Sapp. It's a hard choice: on one side a handful of scientists, a number of scrappy idealists, and small farmers; on the other the government and a network of medical and industrial powerhouses.

"As a practical matter, people will probably have to listen to what the government says," says the Center for Science in the Public Interest's Jacobson. "When there is the question about who are you going to believe, the government is the common denominator even though I commonly disagree with what it says. In any event, the food industry is certainly pushing hard for [food irradiation]. I wish they had pushed just as hard to clean up the food supply over the years."

Where you come down on the decision to accept irradiated beef will probably end up being less of a decision from your head--it's difficult to make sense of conflicting "science" about the safety of food irradiation--than one from your heart. In fact, no matter how the irradiation forces may paint it otherwise, the true battle for meat irradiation is one for your ethical wisdom and soul.

That Costa Rican raspberries, along with all foreign produce, will be irradiated seems all but inevitable and even desirable, considering the other option, that of large-scale Russian roulette with the deadly E. coli O157:H7. The loss here will be tangible, though small. There won't be any reason for raspberry producers to provide raspberry pickers with adequate sanitary facilities, and perhaps delicate raspberries will become less ethereal.

But to embrace American meat irradiation is to take another step down the path to the bifurcation of the food supply: For the poor and the uneducated there will be old meat from factory-farm-raised cows that is processed sloppily, irradiated, and finally prepared sloppily by people so unvalued that they aren't even trusted to fully cook it--$1 burgers laced with deactivated cow shit.

For the rich and educated there will be cows, raised organically by small farmers getting paid a reasonable price for maintaining high standards of cleanliness, which will fetch a premium price--$8 burgers clean as a new Rolex. Costly branded premium grocers like Mississippi Market will be the only place where educated consumers will be assured of getting clean food, since they adhere to private standards vastly higher than those the FDA enforces.

Whichever group of food experts you choose to believe, whether you think meat irradiation is the new DDT or the new chlorine-in-the-water, it's clear that for us as a society, meat irradiation is the next cynical step toward a separate and unequal food supply.

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