TCS Daily


Happy Thanksgiving, No Thanks to Public Citizen

By Duane D. Freese - November 20, 2000 12:00 AM

Here's a thought that is unlikely to help your turkey go down well this week.

More than 76 million Americans every year are poisoned by their foods. Nearly, 9,000 Americans are killed by what they eat.

The poisons? They are Mother Nature's own pathogens - E.coli, salmonella, campylobacter, and trichinosis.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration this month notes that holiday times can pose special risks because of unpasteurized eggnog, the shipment of food through the mail where it can spoil, and the under thawed and undercooked turkeys. The agency highlights the need for safe food handling, washing hands, utensils and cutting boards often.

Nothing can really replace such care. But one thing could help a lot - treating food by irradiation.

The Centers for Disease Control last month estimated that if food irradiation used more widely, 880,000 Americans each year would avoid illness and 350 people - mostly children and old people - would remain alive.

Yet irradiation is hardly used at all here. Why?

It's not bureaucratic blindness. While the U.S. Department of Agriculture has yet to develop standards for the irradiation of red meat three years after the FDA approved its use for that food, consumers won't find poultry, pork, eggs or a host of other foods that won approval up to 15 years ago on their grocers' shelves.

It's not a matter of cost either. Food irradiation, even in limited use would cost no more than 5 cents a pound. In mass production, it would cost less than a half-cent, and reap billions in economic benefits to the nation from fewer lost workdays, medical bills and, most important, lives.

So, if bureaucracy and money aren't the problem, what is? Fear. Fear among food wholesalers and retailers that the public won't buy irradiated food, and fear that if they put it on their shelves they'll face protests by so-called consumerists and environmentalists.

Irradiation is itself an off-putting term, raising the connotation that food is being bombarded by the same neutrons in bombs and nuclear power plants. Ionizing radiation for irradiation, though, is more like microwaves, X-rays and light waves. It cannot make food radioactive.

Yet many people hear the word and immediately respond negatively, which is just what some supposed consumer and environmental groups rely on to help raise other fears about this food process.

Last month, just in time for the holidays, the lead Luddite organization, Public Citizen, issued a report attacking the FDA for failing to properly test food irradiation for safety.

The screed claims the FDA has failed to study "new chemicals" produced in food by irradiation. It claimed that its studies were deficient. And that Congress wasn't told the whole truth about potential dangers from irradiated foods. It then goes on to recommend that the FDA revoke all irradiation permits issued since 1993 and establish, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a committee to implement "sustainable farming, ranching, and food production and transportation practices," code words calling for federal support for their primary funding source, the organic farming industry.

The report in its extremist viewpoints would be funny if it wasn't for what scare mongering has accomplished - the deaths of thousands of children and elderly people over the last few decades.

The facts are that, while Public Citizen claims studies of irradiation were individually deficient, anyone acquainted with accumulated evidence knows that the power of 409 toxicology studies when combined can be quite powerful. And that's how many the FDA looked at, including animal feeding studies, before approving low-dose irradiation of food.

In addition, the FDA thoroughly looked at the supposedly "new chemicals" created by irradiation. Ninety percent of the changes are the same as occur in pasteurization, canning and cooking. The other changes were of like structure to naturally occurring chemicals in food. Irradiation leaves no chemical residues in food.

Backing the FDA up are more than 40 years of other studies. As long ago as 1955, the U.S. Army Medical Department fed irradiated foods to 41 human volunteers in 15-day tests, finding no unfavorable effects. The People's Republic of China conducted similar tests in 1986 with 439 volunteers. The World Health Organization, the Food Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the International Atomic Energy Agency after prolonged study concluded in 1981 "any food irradiated up to an average dose of 1 Mrad or less is wholesome for humans and therefore should be approved without further testing." And then there are the studies by all the foreign countries in which irradiation is used.

To believe Public Citizen, one has to believe that FDA officials in both Republican and Democratic administrations committed perjury and malfeasance. In addition, you'd have to find that world health organization and the American Medical Association were either duped or part of some far-flung conspiracy to destroy the health of the American citizenry.

And if Public Citizen really had any evidence of such things, why hasn't it gone to court to ferret out the evildoers. It certainly has enough money from trial lawyers and the organic farming industry to do so.

Perhaps it knows it would quickly get laughed out of court with its trumped up claims. For the bottom line for Public Citizen isn't public safety and health, it is an anti-technology agenda. It has followed the same route in regard to biotechnology. If it were around in the 19th Century, it would have hung Louis Pasteur and declaimed the invention of the X-ray and the light bulb.

Public Citizen has every right to tout the virtues of organic farming. But its campaign of fear against other technologies, no matter how safe they are, deprives consumers of choices. But that may be what it really wants.

Irradiation is a proven method to make food safer. Fewer people would die if it were in widespread use. But it isn't so they will, a sickening thought to chew on this holiday season.
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