Irradiation is Another Example of FDA Failure

Don't Radiate My Food Bro!

FDA’s recent approval of irradiation to treat iceberg lettuce and spinach is another example of the agency running away from its real problems – it currently cannot effectively protect American consumers from unsafe food and wants to rely on industry-sponsored techno-gimmicks to act as a fig-leaf to hide its shortcomings.

Over the past two decades, FDA has been crippled by its inability to keep up with the changing nature of the food supply along with and the lack of field inspection resources. Recent congressional hearings have exposed these deficiencies. We know that the FDA is responsible for regulating about 80% of the U.S. food supply and has become overwhelmed by the ever-increasing volume of food imports. At the present time, FDA conducts inspections of the domestic food establishments under its jurisdiction once every five to ten years; it conducts virtually no inspections of the foreign establishments that can export food to the United States. Understaffed FDA inspection personnel are only able to inspect about 1% of imported foods presented at ports of entry.

There have been numerous food recalls and public health alerts involving domestic and imported food products ranging from peanut butter to imported peppers. But instead of advocating proposals that would strengthen the FDA’s ability to regulate the safety of the food supply along with the requisite inspection workforce to enforce food safety standards, the FDA’s current leadership has put forth ideas in their Food Protection Plan that would privatize food inspection and rely on the food industry to police itself.

Irradiated MeatThe agency’s current thinking fits hand-in-glove with its decision to permit industry to irradiate iceberg lettuce and spinach. There is currently no comprehensive food safety system to regulate the safety of fresh produce. As a substitute, FDA feels content to rely on technological “silver-bullets” to avoid putting a regulatory scheme in place that would have enforceable food safety standards. Technologies such as irradiation will serve as the perfect excuse for the agency to divert the few inspection resources it has away from those firms that chose to use that technology on the basis that the food that is being produced is “safe.” We fear that some in the food industry will use irradiation as a way to skirt good manufacturing practices because they have a “kill-step” at the end of their food production process. There would be no way to know that because there would be no FDA inspections to find out.

Furthermore, what message does this send to our foreign trading partners? The FDA Import Detention website is replete with examples of contaminated imported food that has been stopped at ports-of-entry. China, India, Mexico, Brazil are all countries that are building food irradiation facilities with the primary purpose of enhancing their capacity to export their food products. Since FDA has virtually no ability to inspect foreign food establishments, do we really know under what conditions the food in these countries is being produced? What good manufacturing practices and good agricultural practices are in place and how well are they regulated? We believe that irradiation will serve as a disincentive for many foreign governments to make the necessary investments to modernize their food safety regulatory systems.

Radiation SymbolFood & Water Watch also has concerns about the safety and efficacy of irradiation as a food safety technology. FDA claims that irradiated foods are safe to eat. There have been studies that challenge that claim and even FDA’s own food safety officials have testified before Congress that they are concerned about the information of certain chemicals, such as furan – a known carcinogen – when some foods are irradiated. Irradiation can cause a change in the texture, taste and nutritional content of food, especially at the doses required to reduce pathogen levels so that the foods are “safe” to eat. These dosages are the equivalent to tens of millions of chest x-rays.

While FDA has approved irradiation as a so-called food safety measure for a number of foods, irradiated foods have not received widespread consumer acceptance for good reason – not enough research has been conducted into the long-term health effects of consuming a steady diet of irradiated foods, and irradiated foods cost substantially more than non-irradiated foods.

Finally, there is one other issue that should cause consumer concern. At the present time, irradiated foods are required to be labeled as either “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.” FDA is currently evaluating comments to a proposed regulation which it published in April 2007 that would eliminate the current labeling requirements for irradiated foods. While FDA officials have been recently quoted in the media claiming that irradiated spinach and iceberg lettuce would have to be labeled as such, they are being disingenuous about that requirement being permanent. In addition, as part of the same proposed regulation, FDA is also considering whether euphemisms such as “cold pasteurization” or “electronic pasteurization” should be used as substitutes on the labels of irradiated foods even though the agency’s own research shows that consumers view those terms as being deceptive.

American consumers deserve a food supply that is safe and wholesome. We have all come to recognize that our food safety system is under severe strain. Fixing it is not going to be easy or inexpensive. Taking shortcuts could make matters even worse.

This is a guest post by Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit consumer organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food.

Help Spread the Word!


Everett Sizemore is the owner and Editor of US Recall News: He is dedicated to educating people about consumer safety, social activism and corporate responsibility by bringing information to Americans about the products they use every day.

4 thoughts on “Irradiation is Another Example of FDA Failure

  1. I am not a scientist, I am simply a mother/grandmother who is concerned about the safety of our food supply. I am also concerned about the every day citizen’s ability to make informed choices about their food when the government is willing to allow food producers to conceal the information necessary to make these choices. I believe the consumer/citizen should have the right to know if our food has been genetically altered, if antibiotics and growth hormones have been fed to the animals we rely on for meat and milk, what chemicals are used in fertilizers and yes if our food has been irradiated. I am not trying to tell the producers they cannot use these procedures in raising and manufacturing their product. I am simply saying that as a consumer I have the right to know and make an informed choice. This information should never be allowed to be hidden or displayed in a way that is not perfectly clear. I am also concerned that the citizens in the lower income brackets are coming out the loser on this issue. I say this because even with the full and correct disclosure of this information many have no choice but to purchase food products treated in this manner because it is less expensive. I feel there is no incentive for the wealthy food producers to clean up their act because they can afford to buy organic. They do not have to eat or drink what is commonly offered for sale in our local grocery markets. If I could afford it I would purchase organic only. With cancer on the rise food producers need to be mindful of the health of the public. When it comes to foreign imports I think the same requirements should apply. Perhaps even stronger inspections should take place. My own daughter was sickened in 1997 with hepatitis A from strawberries sold to the school lunch program in Michigan. These strawberries were fraudulently offered as being raised in the US when they actually were produced in unsanitary conditions in Mexico. Many of her classmates as well as some adults were made ill from this deception. Clean food, water and air are basic needs for the health of all citizens. In the absence of a perfect world we should at least have truthful and complete information about the food, beverages and medicines we consume.

  2. Those that oppose irradiation would rather have us assume a significant risk of illness or death by eating food grown in the ground rather than use an effective method to eliminate the risk of illness.

    Current methods used to clean produce, such as a chlorine wash, are carcinogenic and banned in parts of the world. Where are the clean farm advocates on chlorine? You can’t raise money fighting chlorine but you can raise money fighting irradiation and spreading ignorance.

    Irradiation, the most studied food safety method in history, does not leave a residue. Some minor chemical changes occur, producing low levels of furans. The furans found are also found in some cooked foods and at higher levels. Why are those cooked foods worthy of a warning.

    Irradiated foods have been consumed since the 1920s. Any new method proposed for food safety will not have the wealth of research to reassure us of its safety.

    People who have suppressed immune systems are entitled to protect their health with irradiated foods.

  3. Here is an interesting article regarding cleaning produce that sound a lot safer. You have to wonder why this is not more in the news?

    Produce wash kills bacteria on food

    Published: June 26, 2008 at 2:34 PM


    PULLMAN, Wash., June 26 (UPI) — A fruit and vegetable wash, when used in food-manufacturing, can decrease food pathogens in produce-processing wash water, U.S. researchers said.

    Researchers at the University of Idaho and Washington State University said the product sold commercially as FIT Fruit and Vegetable Wash, not only proved much more effective than the commonly used chlorine dioxide, but is made from ingredients like citric acid and distilled grapefruit oil that are generally regarded as safe.

    Chlorine dioxide, used in food plants, can put workers at risk, when compromised by soils and plant debris in the wash water. In the study, chlorine dioxide killed 90 percent of the target organisms in the food plant and follow-up laboratory studies. By contrast, FIT killed 99.999 percent, said food scientist Dong-Hyun Kang of Washington State University.

    “If you had a million bacteria, you would have one left,” Kang said.

    The research — unusual because part of it was conducted under real-world conditions in an Idaho fresh pack potato operation — is published online ahead of print in the Journal of Food Science in August.

Leave a Comment

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box

Please type the characters of this captcha image in the input box