Irradiation debate

Two recent e-Alerts about the irradiation of beef and other food products (“Don’t Beam Me Up” 2/4/03, and “Radiation Nation” 2/10/03) produced an unusually wide range of reactions – with some members expressing their own concerns as well as their thanks, while others were quite angry that I would even suggest that irradiation might not be safe.

Several members took exception to the fact that “Radiation Nation” referred to the source of gamma rays as “cobalt 80.” Apparently there is no such thing as cobalt 80. That should have read, “cobalt 60.” But this numerical error doesn’t change the substance of the e-Alert. You can call it anything – call it “cobalt lite’n’easy” if you like – it doesn’t alter the fact that studies have shown that irradiation may create potential dangers.

Another member named Anne writes, “The higher radiation levels are intended to kill bacteria, etc. This is no accident. The levels however do not make the material ‘radioactive’ nor does it influence taste or nutritional value.” I agree that irradiation does not create radioactive food. But according to two FDA memorandums (in 1999 and 2000), irradiation destroys vitamins and essential fatty acids.

I don’t mean to pick on Anne (especially because her e-mail included a compliment), but she also stated that, “Research has concluded that the benefits from irradiation strongly outweighs any minimal risks.”

I will agree that there are benefits to irradiation – apparently it kills bacteria better than anything out there. But portraying the risks as minimal is a judgment call. References from the journal “Radiation Physics and Chemistry,” The Fifth German Conference on Food Irradiation (both in 1998), and the 12th International Meeting on Radiation Processing (2001), conclude that irradiation disrupts the chemical composition of everything it touches, creating chemicals called “radiolytic products.” One of those chemicals has been shown to cause cancer in rats, and genetic damage in human cells.

I admit that these studies don’t provide absolute and conclusive proof that irradiated beef is a serious danger to humans. But that was the very point of the two e-Alerts: Irradiation of beef has been shown to be potentially dangerous, but no long-range studies have been conducted to determine the effects this beef may have on humans. So the question is: Why would we embrace this method before we’re certain that it’s safe?

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson

Health Sciences Institute


“The Top 10 Problems With Irradiated Food” Public Citizen, 2001