Irradiated Beef: Soon Available at a Public School Near You?

by Eryn Moris

A package of ground beef travels on a conveyor belt into a chamber with walls six feet thick and is exposed to either gamma rays or electron beams. Either way, the beef is exposed to the same amount of radiant energy found in about 150 million chest x-rays. After undergoing this extra procedure, the beef is distributed to your local grocery stores and food distribution services, only distinguishable from non-nuked beef by a small, harmless-looking sticker bearing a green flower in a broken circle, the radura irradiation symbol. In 2002 the Farm Bill was passed, stating that the United States Department of Agriculture “shall not prohibit the use of any technology to improve food safety that has been approved by the Secretary of Agriculture or has been approved or is otherwise allowed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services.” Irradiation is one such technology. When used on refrigerated or frozen raw meat and poultry products, the dose of irradiation approved by the FDA guarantees a 99.9% reduction in the level of E. coli, and a significant reduction in the level of bacteria that cause Salmonella. Irradiation does not kill all pathogens and is considered by the USDA as another tool to enhance food safety along with existing safe handling and preparation practices. Irradiation also reduces spoilage and can extend the shelf life of many perishable food products. Food irradiation has been approved in 37 countries for more than 40 food products. Irradiation was deemed safe by the FDA in the United States in 1997 after scientific reviews of a number of studies that examined the chemical effects, impact on nutrient content, and potential toxicity concerns of irradiated food. Irradiation is also used in medical treatments and sterilization, to destroy bacteria in cosmetics, to make non-stick cookware coatings, and to make tires more durable. Marked packages of irradiated meat began appearing on supermarket shelves in 1999, and a nationwide survey conducted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in November, 2002 found 48% of Americans are likely to purchase irradiated meat. More than 100 Dairy Queen franchises in Minnesota have been serving only irradiated burgers for the past year. Sysco foodservice distribution centers, a major supplier to Milwaukee area restaurants, carry irradiated meat. The Schwann’s man will even deliver irradiated meat to your door. But how would do you feel if your neighborhood schools began using irradiated beef donated through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) in your child’s lunch? Another provision of the 2002 Farm Bill forbids the USDA from restricting the distribution of irradiated foods through national school lunch and child nutrition programs. Irradiated beef was approved for use in the NSLP in May and will be available to schools that choose to use it in January, 2004. Though the USDA has provided local school districts with materials specifically designed to educate communities, parents, students and school personnel on irradiation, they do not have the authority to require them to do so. The decision to order and serve irradiated ground beef will be left to each school food authority. Next month, we will look at possible use of irradiated beef in Riverwest schools. Do you have an opinion? Let your neighborhood schools know what you think.