Food Irradiation: Zap It!

Food Irradiation: Zap It!

by Elayne Clift


0f all the hypes ever imposed on a people, none has been more insidious than the U.S. government’s 50-year promotion of atomic and nuclear substances. The nuclear age, so the argument went, would lead to innovations in medicine, fuel sources and other means of progress geared to the good life. Today, the hype extends to the promotion of food irradiation which the nuclear industry would have us believe is an effective and safe way to preserve food at minimal public risk.

Many scientists disagree. They argue that irradiated foods are depleted of nutritional value and that irradiation masks bacterial contamination. More importantly, they say, irradiated foods expose consumers to an entirely new range of carcinogens. Writing in The Ecologist in 1988, Dr. Richard Piccioni, a senior staff scientist with a New York research group, said “food irradiation should be seen for what it is, an unscrupulous attempt to find a commercial use for nuclear wastes.”

Food irradiation is a preservation process in which food is conveyed through an irradiation chamber where it is exposed to gamma radiation from radioactive materials (usually cobalt-60 or cesium137, by-products of nuclear waste) or to an electronic beam. Radiation penetrates food and destroys harmful organisms. The food itself does not become radioactive. Proponents claim that the process extends shelf life, destroys insects, controls bacterial growth, sterilizes food and controls ripening time.

A growing number of consumers, along with many scientists, just aren’t buying it. They are convinced that radiation is indiscriminate in its effects, impacting the wholesomeness of food, and posing serious health hazards, including chromosomal abnormalities and reproductive failures.

Betty Long, a resident of Cleveland and Chair of the food irradiation issue for the Northeast Ohio Sierra Club, summed up the sentiment in her recent testimony to a city committee. “Personally I feel it is a privilege to live in a country where fresh food is bountiful. A constant supply of fresh, edible, non-irradiated food is available at our food markets. Why this urgency to introduce a questionable technology? More consumers want organic, untreated food. There is just no justification for [food irradiation].” Long and others in Ohio were successful in stopping the sale of irradiated foods in Lakewood, Cleveland, Brook Park, East Cleveland and Parma. Long now says she will take the issue before state legislators. “The industry is doing its best to get on line, but public acceptance is not there. Consumers, more than ever, insist on safe food.”

Joanne Smith of Ridgefield, CT has the same spirit and energy. Co-founder of Fairfield County for Safe Food, Smith and others organized a lobbying effort focused on getting legislation passed to ban the sale of irradiated food in that state. Their efforts have paid off. Rep. Barbara Ireland has said she will sponsor such a bill next year. In developing strategy, Smith asked herself and others some key questions. “Why do they want to irradiate food? It’s not the consumer coming in saying ‘I really want you to irradiate my food’,” she says. ‘There is some suspicion that this is a technology looking for a use.” Smith also points out that the food irradiation industry stands to make an enormous profit. She and her colleagues are concerned about a growing number of plants around the country, and the transporting, storing and use of dangerous radioactive substances in communities. “What’s going to happen to the environment and the people around these plants?” she wants to know.

It’s a question worth asking, as the people of Decatur, AL well know. On the morning of June 6, 1988, an internal safety device detected a radiation leak and automatically shut down the Radiation Sterilizers, Inc. plant there. Decatur is densely populated. Experts had said, before the accident, that such incidents were simply impossible. Yet, clean-up took more than a year and several million taxpayers’ dollars, and the exact cause of the accident is still unknown.

The Decatur accident is foremost in the minds of residents in Mulberry, FL where Vindicators of Florida is building a food irradiation plant despite enormous opposition from community activists. First planned for Lakeland but defeated by residents there, the Mulberry facility seems to enjoy wide support from city officials despite public outcry. In spite of well-organized efforts by the Polk County Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, Vindicators is moving forward and has recently applied to Health Rehabilitation Services (HRS), the government’s regulatory agency, for its license.

The citizens of Mulberry are considering whether to take action against the city, which, they say, violated their rights in allowing Vindicators to build. “There are three issues here,” says Helga Druguet, a spokeswoman for the Polk County Coalition. “First, there’s how people feel about their food being irradiated. Then, there are the environmental issues. No one wants this in their backyard. It’s also a home rule issue. The community should be able to vote on something and have its vote honored. Our community rights have been violated and that’s a dangerous precedent.”

But the people of Mulberry have even more to worry about. There is serious concern that political corruption involving the building of the Vindicator plant is so pervasive that even talking about it is dangerous. The facts are foreboding. Two years ago, Mulberry’s commissioners passed a one-year moratorium on the building of the controversial plant. Subsequently, a4-to-lvotebanned businesses handling hazardous materials. Then, the State Attorney’s office issued an opinion that only the state could pass judgment on such matters. Based on that, a circuit court judge overturned the building ban. But the intriguing piece of the puzzle is this: Sam Whitney, who as head of Vindicator denies that there is any real opposition to the irradiation plant he is building, was for 35 years in the phosphate industry in Mulberry, where he “made his money” before taking the lead at Vindicator.

Understandably, the Mulberry case has drawn national attention, and activists everywhere are watching what happens next. As one resident put it, “the battle will now be found in the grocery stores and at the dinner table.”

The people of Santa Cruz County, AZ had a better experience than their counterparts in Florida. They were successful in blocking construction of a planned irradiation facility in Nogales that would have been the largest such facility in the world. Aresolution drawn up by the Board of Supervisors of Santa Cruz County was passed unanimously last May. The resolution also urged the U.S. Congress to pass bills that would place a moratorium on the sale and processing of irradiated foods. The Board’s action has been applauded by environmental groups throughout the country as well as by other Arizona groups.

The resolution was the culmination of action taken by Citizens for Safe Food, whose organizers rallied citizens and educatedresidents and elected officials about their concerns. Virginia Dean and Carol Soth led the drive, realizing early on that organizing at the community level was essential. Food and Water, Inc., the Tucson Cooperative Warehouse and the National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation were contacted. These organizations provided the local group with support, speakers and videotaped information for the planning meetings. Says Dean, “with increased community awareness, the more we understood what was happening to our food sources.”

Carol Soth saw the issue as big enough to warrant the monitoring of actions taken by the facility planners and to enlist the support of legislators and community leaders. “I was tired of being used as a guinea pig,” she recalls. “I was tired of them telling me things are safe only to find out 20 years later that they are not. The studies used by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are inadequate and there are so many health issues and environmental concerns relating to food irradiation.”

Nogales Mayor Jose Luis De La Ossa cited a number of environmental concerns in a letter he wrote to the Arizona State Lands Department. In addition to worries about the planned residential location of the plant and its access to the border, the mayor raised these environmental concerns: What is the risk associated with potential hazardous waste or industrial waste exposure to the surrounding residential area? What is the risk of groundwater pollution from such a facility? Are there airborne emissions? What mitigative studies and measures will be undertaken to minimize potential impact to the environment or health of [our citizens]?

It is a list of questions others would be well-advised to raise if food irradiation plants are suggested in their communities. Concerned citizens can also:

* Write or call your local Congressional representatives to express your opinions about food irradiation;

* Support Food & Water, Inc. (255 Lafayette St., Rm. 612, New York, NY 10012), the leading consumer activist group working to end food irradiation in the U.S.;

* Register your opposition by calling the United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Assn., the trade association that represents fresh fruit and vegetable growers, shippers, processors and distributors in the U.S. (1-800-336-3065).

Elayne Clift is a writer in Potomac, MD specializing in women, health, environment and international development issues. Her collected essays, Telling it Like it is: Reflections of a Not So Radical Feminist, has just been published by KIT Publications.


So far, the FDA has approved irradiation for treatment of fresh fruits and vegetables, pork, wheat and wheat flour, nuts, seeds, teas, dried vegetable seasonings and extracts, spices and, most recently, poultry. In its ruling on irradiated food labeling, the FDA now requires that the words “irradiated” or “treated with irradiation” appear on whole foods that have been affected. (Past rulings had proposed that the wording be dropped and replaced with only the radura, a flower symbol representing irradiation.) The policy still allows all irradiated ingredients in processed foods to go unlabeled.

Maine, New York and New Jersey have banned the sale and manufacture of radiation-exposed food and many other states, including Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are considering similar legislation. Australia, Germany and Japan have enacted national bans on the sale of irradiated food. A Louis Harris poll revealed that almost 80 percent of consumers consider radiation-exposed food a hazard. Over 1,000 corporations including General Foods, A&P Supermarkets, McCormick Spices and McDonalds Corporation have pledged not to use or sell irradiated foods. —E.C.