Irradiation for Packaged Foods: a 'Hot Issue' Again

Date: May 01, 2003

While Congress is trying to encourage the use of irradiation to treat food products in the U.S., some public interest groups are becoming more vocal in declaring such products not to be safe and are urging the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) not to expand clearances for irradiation of new food products and packages.

Congress recently included a provision in the farm bill directing the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy irradiated beef for the federal school lunch program, and make it available to school districts that request it. So far, USDA has only established a pilot program in the Minneapolis school system (at the request of Minneapolis officials).

But that step has acted as a lightening rod for attack by some public interest groups.

Study raises toxicity questions
The latest ammunition being used by U.S.-based consumer groups such as Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety are studies conducted in Europe which examine the toxicity of 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs), which are purported to be found only in irradiated fatty foods and produced by the radiation-induced breakage of triglycerides.

The study authors suggest that 2-ACBs "have cyto- and genotoxic properties under precise experimental conditions," including a finding of DNA damage in an in vitro study using human cell lines and a cytotoxic effect in a bacteria study, although it was found to be negative in an Ames test. Studies also showed some of these compounds to promote tumor development (that is, to make existing tumors larger or grow faster) in the colons of rats when administered along with the known carcinogen, azoxymethane (AOM).

The study authors "warn against misuse of the data presented here to discredit food irradiation," noting that the work was done with highly pure synthesized versions of the compounds and not irradiated foods and only on cell systems and laboratory animals.

Nonetheless, in a very European way, the study authors urged exercise of the precautionary principle regarding the expansion of irradiation treatment for food products. They indicated that additional work was necessary on such matters as dose-response relationship, the particular kinetics and metabolism of 2-ACBs in living organisms and estimated exposure levels to humans.

And although FDA may not be so quick to jump, the findings contributed at least in part to the European Parliament's decision to reject a proposal to expand the types of food that could be irradiated in the European Union (EU). Currently, irradiation is permitted only for spices, herbs and other seasonings in the EU.

Based on these studies, U.S. consumer groups are urging FDA not only to go slow on the petitions currently pending, but to re-examine its safety determinations on the products that it has already found to be acceptable for use with irradiation.

No doubt, FDA officials will exercise the typical degree of caution in examining the safety issues prior to expanding the use of irradiation. However, officials have not seen any basis for reconsidering the determinations it has already made.

The other hand
As some of the safety issues of irradiation are being revisited, a recent survey on food safety issues indicates a growing acceptance by some people to irradiated food.

As part of its pilot program with the USDA, Minneapolis officials decided to create an educational campaign about the use and benefits of irradiated food products. As a first step in organizing that campaign, Minnesota officials commissioned a survey of parents and foodservice staff to explore attitudes about the issue.

The survey found that 65% of parents believed that food borne illness and/or safety is not a problem in the public school system as compared to 36% of staff, and that both groups were about equally likely to have some familiarity with the term "irradiated ground beef."

Moreover, when asked what comes to mind when they hear the term "irradiated ground beef," positive comments outscored negative comments by a ratio of 2 to 1 on the part of staff and teachers, and at about 1.5 to 1 on the part of parents. Parents and staff also were asked who they most trusted regarding food safety in schools and cited doctors and dieticians as their most trusted source. Amazingly, few staff or parents expressed a great deal of trust in government or public interest advocates.

The irradiation dilemma is an interesting one. Do we use a proven technology that can significantly reduce known acute hazards related to food-borne illness when long-term risks are not fully established and appear to be minimal? Or do we reject that technology in hopes of developing and implementing a fool-proof system that will put a near certain end to potential microbial contamination through the use of traditional safe food handling and inspection practices?

No one expects irradiation to substitute for good manufacturing and sanitation habits in food production. All it can do is augment such practices, and thereby provide us a greater degree of protection against unwanted microbial contamination and the public health issues that arise as a result of it. But if Public Citizen and the like are allowed to control the public debate through the use of scare tactics and fear-mongering, we may never appreciate the full benefits of such technology.

Used with permission. Copyright FOOD & DRUG PACKAGING, May, 2003.

For further information about this article, please contact George G. Misko at 202-434-4170 or by e-mail at misko@khlaw.com.