The other night I was at a dinner party. At the conclusion of the meal, the hostess asked one of the guests to say a few words about why he was there. As he spoke, I realized why our host had waited until after dinner to have him speak.
Dr. Samuel Epstein, a professor at the public health school of the Illinois Medical Center, was promoting a study he had cowritten on how the Food and Drug Administration has legalized food irradiation without adequately testing the process.
He quickly gained our attention with a factoid: Beef, that is irradiated (that is, shot with radiation to kill off bacteria and increase the product's shelf life), undergoes the equivalent of 150 million chest X-rays.
The food and irradiation industries maintain this poses no threat to whoever ends up eating the treated meat. A reasonable reaction from a lay-person is a skeptical "yeah, right." Epstein was armed with more than skepticism.
Spice of life
The FDA has been approving food irradiation for the past 17 years. It started with spices in 1983, moved to pork in 1985. Then came fruits and vegetables in 1986, poultry in 1990, beef and lamb in 1997, and eggs in July 2000.
In May 2000, irradiated meat went on sale in the United States. Epstein and the Public Citien report contend that these approvals were based on a small number of substandard tests.
Have the FDA and the food industry actually endorsed a procedure that boosts profits at the expense of the public? Epstein and his colleagues maintain they have, and one of the more alarming portions of their argument concerns what's known as unique radiolytic products (URP's).
A 1977 study conducted for the Army discovered that of 65 chemical compounds found in irradiated beef, 35 did not naturally occur in this food, five did not naturally appear in any food, and 15 increased in concentration due to irradiation.
The latter category included benzene, which has been branded a carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.
This 1977 study also noted that with irradiated food "the possible presence of undetected substances can never be excluded." So the chemical composition of the food was changed. Shouldn't the next step have been for the FDA to conduct rigorous tests?
Nah. According to the report Epstein cowrote, the FDA's Irradiated Food Committee "stated, without presenting specific evidence, that any URPs formed in irradiated food likely would not cause health problems in humans because the chemicals likely would be similar to chemicals in non-irradiated food."
That seems a conclusion based more on hope than science.
No extensive tests
The scientists who conducted the 1977 study called for further study of URPs in irradiated foods. But the Public Citizen report notes that no extensive testing of this sort occurred.
Before the FDA legalizes a food additive, it must establish "a reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that the substance is not harmful under the intended condition of use." But that procedure has not been followed. As the report states, "In short, the FDA does not know whether the new chemicals formed in irradiated beef can be harmful to humans."
Epstein asserts irradiation is dangerous; it results in nutritional loss within the treated foods.
He points to studies that found gross chromosomal abnormalities in animals fed irradiated food. And then there's the risk posed by possible accidents in irradiation facilities. His Public Citizen report calls for revoking all food irradiation permits and an all-out independent testing program for irradiated foods.
It's not easy for the nonscientific among us to navigate through a technical controversy. In these disputes, industry often pooh-poohs the critics. But the Public Citizen report includes a 1998 FDA memo that supports those doubtful of the FDA on this front.
For example, the memo lists three animal studies that were used to justify the agency's decision to permit the irradiation of eggs. One was a summary report, the second was rejected as "too hard to follow" and the third was identified by the FDA as "weak."
But each of these studies maintained that irradiated eggs pose no threat, and the FDA concluded that despite flaws in three individual studies, "taken together," the irradiation of eggs should be backed. This reliance upon less-than-stellar research hardly inspires confidence.
The nuke-the-food cheerleaders argue that irradiation thwarts such health threats as E. coli. (The process also allows the industry to sell the stuff for longer periods and ship it further.)
But improving sanitation in the food industry would likely address most of the health problems. A recent paper Epstein cowrote that proposes a sanitation-not-irradiation policy was endorsed by two dozen scientists and public health experts.
Still, the industry is looking to irradiate a wider slice of the food chain. The National Food Processors Association, which lobbies for the $460 billion food processing industry, has asked the FDA to OK irradiating "ready-to-eat" foods, which make up about one-third of the typical American's diet.
And, if the government approves all the pending requests, 90 percent of the average Joe's diet will be foods eligible for irradiation.
The FDA, under pressure from industry and its allies in Congress, is also considering changing the rules that require irradiated foods to be labeled as such. Possible replacement terms include "cold pasteurized" and "electronically pasteurized."
Why not put a big label on these foods that proclaims, "Zapped with Radiation Equivalent to 150 Million Chest X-Rays!" and then let market forces run their course?
As I listened, I sure wondered about the delicious beef we had been served earlier, and, I assume, the other guests did, too. But no one dared ask. It wouldn't have been polite. Besides, what was in, was in.
Which is the point. Consumers should be able to have confidence in the food supply and the government officials who are entrusted with the task of safeguarding it. Epstein and his Public Citizen have raised unsettling questions -- questions that Congress, the administration and the FDA ought to digest.