Where's the (irradiated) beef?

The town of Mulberry sits halfway between Tampa and Lake Wales on Highway 60. Make the trip and you'll find the Mulberry Phosphate Museum, which displays both reasons why anyone should care about Mulberry in the first place: prehistoric fossils of 40-foot sharks and saber-tooth tigers from an area once submerged under an ocean, and an homage to the mining industry that put Mulberry on the map. The open phosphorous mines near the town, which produce fertilizer, give off a slightly radioactive glow to the area known as Bone Valley.

Against this backdrop, Bone Valley is beaming with pride about its fastest-growing industry, food irradiation. The source of the pride is Food Technology Services, a large industrial plant that calls itself, "The first irradiation company in North America dedicated to the food market." For nearly 10 years this publicly traded company (Nasdaq: VIFL) has been in the food-sanitation business, zapping gamma irradiation into a wide variety of products including spices, produce and food packaging. The most recent addition to their lineup is meat.

Food Tech, as the business is called on its website, has a new partner: Publix. Soon Food Tech will begin irradiating Publix's "New Generation" line of frozen ground beef patties, chicken breasts and frozen chicken tenders that the chain will sell in its 700-plus stores throughout the south. Customers will be able to identify the irradiated meat by the radura symbol -- a green flower inside a broken circle -- along with the words "Treated by Irradiation" or "Treated with Irradiation."

Dr. Rick Hunter, the company's chief executive officer, says Sept. 11 helped educate the public about his business. "Right after 9/11, there was a lot of interest in the irradiation of mail. That's how the public learned more about irradiation," Hunter says. "The message was that it is also used on foods."

So far the message hasn't sunk in. In Florida, six independently owned stores that started selling irradiated hamburger patties two years ago took them off the shelves due to poor sales. The test market was a disaster despite a consumer-education campaign by both the federal and state government.

Hunter, who was Florida's deputy state health officer from 1989 to 2001, even added his name to a state-sponsored publicity campaign, urging Floridians to embrace irradiated food. That was before he jumped ship in September of 2001 to become CEO of Food Technology, a move he says made good sense because of his background in public health.

Within the 6-foot-thick walls of its 3,000-square-foot food-irradiator chamber, Food Tech uses gamma radiation produced by Cobalt-60 to zap packaged food. Of the 45 or so irradiators operating in the country, Hunter says they are the only one using gamma radiation on meat. Others -- such as the big daddy of irradiators, SureBeam of San Diego�Рuse speed-of-light electrons.

About this there is no disagreement -- irradiation kills food-borne bacteria by scrambling the DNA of E. coli, listeria and salmonella, picked up from manure during meat processing. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food-borne illnesses strike more than 76 million Americans each year and kill about 5,000. Particularly vulnerable are children and those with compromised immune systems.

"The irradiation of ground beef is frequently compared to the pasteurization of milk for the revolutionary food safety benefits it provides," says Hunter.

But Public Citizen, the Washington, D.C.-based consumer group, and a growing number of scientists, believe there is a distinct, possibly dangerous difference between food that has been irradiated and food that hasn't.

The group's report, "Hidden Harm," written last year by Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety, chronicles the chemical changes in irradiated food exposed to the short-wave, high-energy gamma radiation. Tony Corbo, who helped put the report together, says past experiments have revealed a wide range of health problems in animals that ate irradiated food, including premature death, a rare form of cancer, genetic damage and a unique group of chemicals formed during irradiation, cyclobutanones.

Cyclobutanones are found so consistently in irradiated food the compounds are cited by scientists as a marker. They are formed from the irradiation of fats commonly found in many ready-to-eat foods such as pizza, baked goods and meat.

In the newest studies on irradiation, German researchers in 1998, noting slight-but-significant DNA damage in rats fed irradiated food, concluded "further studies are needed to clarify the relevance of these results to an evaluation of risk from the consumption of irradiated foods." A group of government and academic scientists funded by the European Union will publish similar findings.

The Food and Drug Administration's claims that irradiated food is chemically similar to non-irradiated food were published in the Federal Register in the '80s and '90s, and, according to George Pauli of the FDA's Division of Product Policy, were based on studies conducted in the '60s and '70s.

"Science doesn't change once the facts are established," Pauli says. The German studies were based on extremely high intakes of irradiated food, he adds.

Public Citizen claims the FDA has never publicly acknowledged conducting a formal analysis of the potential toxicity of cyclobutanones. In fact, the FDA does not test for food safety; instead it reviews petitions submitted by food manufacturers when they want to bring a new item, including irradiated food, to the marketplace. The FDA is currently considering a petition to allow "ready to eat" food to be irradiated, including deli meat, ketchup and soup.

"We have demanded legislative language put into an appropriations bill last year calling for the FDA to do independent testing, but the industry had it removed at house-appropriations level," says Corbo of Public Citizen.

The Cobalt-60 used at Food Technology comes from a Canadian company, MDS Nordion. While it lasts for years, Cobalt-60 eventually decays and needs to be replaced. The transport of the radioactive material through the border and over highways is overseen by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But don't ask how closely it's monitored.

"Tight security," is all that Victor Dricks of the NRC will admit, refusing to elaborate on who hauls the material and how. The idea of terrorists commandeering the radioactive material so concerned Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) that he introduced legislation last summer to reduce the threat of "dirty bombs" and radiological sabotage at sites that use radiation for medical sterilization or food irradiation. Hunter says Food Technology already does background checks on its 11 full-time employees, and that the 6-foot walls and roof of the processing chamber would make it difficult for the even most aggressive terrorist to break in.

Though irradiated meat was approved for consumption by the FDA in 1997, Public Citizen reports there is an increased interest in it, with more stores picking up the products in the last two months than in the last two years. Most of the interest has come from grocers from the Northeast, such as Giant Food, Pathmark and Price Chopper.

The sudden popularity of the products follows recent banner headlines about tainted-meat recalls. The largest, in October, saw 27.4 million pounds of Pilgrim's Pride cooked poultry tainted with listeria taken off the shelves after seven deaths were linked to its consumption. Earlier in the year, ConAgra, the giant meat producer, recalled 19 million pounds of ground beef believed to be contaminated with E. coli.

Public-health advocates agree that cleaning up tainted meat starts at the source. In meat-packing plants, that means avoiding the intestinal contents of animals coming in contact with the meat. So why not clean up the source of food-borne disease at its source as an alternative to irradiation?

Critics say deregulation by the Clinton administration in 1996 has actually cut back on meat inspections and made things worse. In early November, consumer advocacy groups sent a letter to U.S. Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman, asking her to explain why her agency was tying the hands of meat inspectors by warning Kansas field workers that they could be held personally responsible for stopping meat production lines unless they found meat with a "a material of yellow, green, brown or dark color that has a fibrous nature." And two weeks ago, the American Meat Institute asked Veneman to allow irradiated meat be included in the food it purchases for the National School Lunch Program.

"The USDA would rather feed irradiated food to schoolchildren than let inspectors have the authority to make sure the meat is wholesome," says Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program.

Look for Publix's "New Generation" line of irradiated meats on your grocer's shelves early next year.

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