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Happy meal

Would you like to participate in an experiment? There’s just one catch: you, your family, and your friends and neighbors are going to be the guinea pigs. Enjoy!

If that sounds like a joke, you won’t be laughing when you hear the new information about irradiated meat that appears in the August 2003 issue of Consumer Reports (CR) magazine.

Longtime e-Alert readers know that I have occasionally taken Consumer Reports research to task whenever I felt it veered outside its zone of competence in healthcare matters. But I’ll be the first to acknowledge when CR research stays inside that zone and gets it right – which is the case with a recent CR microbial analysis and taste test of irradiated meat sampled from grocery stores in 11 states.

Unfortunately the results don’t smell very good.

Suddenly, I’m not hungry

Last February I sent you two e-Alerts about the dangers of irradiated meat: “Don’t Beam Me Up” (2/4/03), and “Radiation Nation” (2/10/03). I promised to keep you up to date on the latest developments, so when I saw this CR report I wanted to share the details with you, along with some other information you won’t find in the report.

To briefly recap: Irradiation is a process by which a food product is exposed to extremely high doses of radiation that breaks down chemical bonds, killing bacteria, parasites and funguses that may cause disease. But like any technology that monkeys around with nature, you usually end up doing as much damage as good.

Consumer Reports asked specially trained shoppers to purchase grocery store samples of irradiated beef and chicken in 60 U.S. cities. More than 500 samples were cold-packed and shipped to labs for examination. To no one’s surprise, the bacteria levels were found to be “significantly” lower in the irradiated meat samples compared to non-irradiated meat. And if that were all that mattered, the test would be a triumph for irradiation.

Two key points from the CR microbial analysis stand out:

1) After meat has been irradiated it can still become contaminated if not handled properly. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, 20 percent of food-borne illnesses are caused by mishandling after meat reaches the store.

2) After meat is purchased, if it’s properly stored and cooked, irradiation offers no benefit because proper cooking kills more bacteria than irradiation.

But there’s one more point on the safety issue that completely floored me. Here’s how the CR report puts it: “The government considers irradiation so effective that it allows tainted ground beef that otherwise would be unlawful to sell, such as meat containing E. coli O157:H7, to be irradiated and sold to consumers.”

Staggering, isn’t it? Knowing that, and given the choice between irradiated meat and normally processed meat, which would you choose?

Tainted never tasted so good

Selling the idea of irradiated food to consumers has been an uphill battle. The word “irradiated” is a little too close to “radiation” for comfort. So last year congress included a clause in the 2002 Farm Act that broadened the definition of pasteurization. This change was specifically designed so that meat processors and retailers could use the term “cold pasteurized” rather than “irradiation.”

But another even more convenient way to ease consumers’ fears is to simply mislead them.

The Consumer Reports research discovered two promotional statements for irradiated meat to be untrue. A flyer from one supermarket chain stated that irradiation “eliminates any bacteria that might exist in food.” The CR report established that this is untrue, but this was a known fact long before the current issue of CR hit the stands. But it also gives the impression that the meat can’t be contaminated, which could easily lead to lax handling and cooking by consumers.

The second statement comes from a pamphlet put out by SureBeam, one of the leading food irradiators. The claim: “You can’t taste the difference.”

Wellnot quite, says CR. According to CR’s taste test in which tasters were not aware if they were eating normal or irradiated meat, the irradiated beef and chicken samples were picked out by the tasters in well over half the matchups. The irradiated meat had what was described as a “slight but distinct off taste and smell,” and was compared to the aroma of singed hair.

Yum! Would you like a side of E. coli with that?

You are what you irradiate

In his “Daily Dose” e-letter, William Campbell Douglass, M.D., noted another problem with irradiation. In “Zap! Your food is safe” (8/16/02), Dr. Douglass wrote, “If irradiated food is subsequently mishandledand becomes contaminated with a disease-causing organism, the food will lack the competing beneficial organisms that could otherwise inhibit its growth. This is comparable to the situation in your intestine. There are trillions of bacteria in your gut, but they are friendly agents when in that environment. If you were to irradiate your gut, you would kill these organisms and there would be a foreign invasion that would probably kill you.”

And as if all of that weren’t enough, last year a German study showed that a “unique byproduct” created when fat is irradiated may have promoted tumor development in laboratory animals. Further studies were called for and are apparently underway. In response, the European Union has suspended the irradiation of beef and other foods (except for certain spices and herbs) until research can demonstrate that irradiation is safe.

What a concept! Start with thorough testing. THEN, if safety is completely assured, proceed with the technology. Gee, why didn’t WE think of that?

In a New York Times article about irradiation last year, Carol Tucker Foreman (the director of the Food Policy Institute at the Consumer Federation of America) stressed the uncertain health risks of irradiation, saying, “There is nowhere in the world where a large population has eaten large amounts of irradiated food over a long period of time.”

In other words, every time someone picks up a package of irradiated ground beef at their neighborhood grocery, and every time they order chicken or steak from a restaurant that buys irradiated meat, they’re participating in an experiment they didn’t even know they signed up for.

At least this way, SureBeam and other irradiation companies don’t have to waste a lot of money buying laboratory guinea pigs.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute

“Irradiated Meat: Safer But A Little Off – Consumer Group Says Irradiated Meat Not as
Safe or Tasty as Claimed” Daniel DeNoon, WebMD Medical News, 7/9/03,
“The Truth About Irradiated Meat” Consumer Reports, August 2003,
“How We Tested Beef and Chicken” Consumer Reports, August 2003,
“Zap! Your Food is Safe” William Campbell Douglass, M.D., The Daily Dose, 8/16/02,