James Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo are professors of economics at George Mason University in Virginia and Loyola College in Maryland, respectively. This article is adapted from their forthcoming book, The Food and Drink Police: America’s Nannies, Busybodies, and Petty Tyrants.
Last summer the meat-processing company Hudson Foods recalled 25 million pounds of hamburger after several people suffered from E. coli poisoning apparently caused by meat produced at its plant in Nebraska. As many as 500 Americans die each year from E. coli infection, and tens of thousands more are taken ill by the ingestion of the bacteria, which is found in the intestines of cows.
All this illness and death is completely preventable, however, through food irradiation. The problem is that political pressure groups such as the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Food and Water, Inc., have waged effective propaganda campaigns against food irradiation. Anti-irradiation propaganda has been so effective that it has intimidated most grocers in the country, who refuse to sell irradiated food despite the well-known fact that the process would essentially render E. coli poisoning a thing of the past.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had approved the irradiation of many foods, but not, until last December, red meat. Such “protection” at the hands of self-promoting “consumer protection” groups and government regulators is indeed hazardous to health.
What Is Irradiation?
Food irradiation involves a modest dose of gamma rays, machine-generated electrons, or X-rays. The energy passes through the food, leaving no residue or aftertaste, and destroys bacteria, molds, yeasts, and insects. Numerous studies have shown that it eliminates more than 99 percent of such bacteria and parasites as salmonella, E. coli, listeria, campylobacter, and trichinella, organisms the Centers for Disease Control says are responsible for 10,000 deaths annually in the United States.
Even before its belated approval of irradiation for red meat, the FDA advocated it for other foods: “If poultry irradiation were widely used in this country,” says the agency’s Douglas Archer, “I believe it could prevent hundreds of thousands of illnesses and hundreds of deaths each year.” The American Gastroenterological Association Foundation recently stated that the elimination of E. coli is “currently impossible” without irradiation.
The widespread use of irradiation would also make some foods cheaper. “By stocking irradiated produce, I can reduce my retail price because there is less spoilage,” says Jim Corrigan, owner of Carrot Top, a grocery store in Illinois that is one of the first in the Midwest to stock irradiated food. This practice would put millions (if not billions) of dollars annually back into the pockets of consumers if it were to become widespread nationally (and internationally).
In essence, irradiation does to solid foods what pasteurization does to liquids. The U.S. government has approved irradiation of poultry, fruits, vegetables, pork, flour, and spices. But the FDA dragged its feet on red meat and must therefore share some of the responsibility for the recent illnesses and deaths caused by E. coli-tainted meat. Moreover, its “endorsement” of irradiation for such foods as poultry is tainted by the fact that it requires packages of poultry to contain the “radura,” the creepy-looking green international symbol for radiation, along with the statement, “Treated with Radiation.” This is enough to scare consumers away despite the FDA’s official endorsement of irradiation.
The big problem, however, is that the self-appointed national nannies at CSPI, Food and Water, Inc., and elsewhere, have an irrational fear of anything associated with the word “radiation,” and they have found that they can raise large amounts of money from a gullible public by promising to “protect” it from “radiation” in its food supply. A gullible and scientifically uninformed media allow the group to get away with an endless stream of unsubstantiated propaganda.
The questionable nature of the public-information campaigns of the anti-irradiation pressure groups was on display in a January 27, 1993, ABC News “20/20” segment hosted by John Stossel. Stossel showed up at Food and Water, Inc.’s public protest of the opening of the nation’s first commercial food-irradiation plant in Mulberry, Florida, and interviewed organization spokesman Michael Colby. “If you look at the existing studies on humans and animals fed irradiated food,” Colby soberly stated on camera, “you will find testicular tumors, chromosomal abnormalities, kidney damage, and cancer and birth defects.” Such statements by an authoritative-sounding spokesman for a “consumer” group are enough to turn anyone against irradiation. The problem, Stossel discovered, was that the author of the study that Colby referred to “never said the kids [in the study] were developing cancer.”
Food and Water, Inc., was caught in a lie on national television. Its radio ads are also highly questionable. One of them claimed that “many scientists are saying irradiation makes food unsafe,” and that “new studies” supposedly show that “ingesting radiation exposed foods causes genetic damage, which can lead to cancer, and birth defects.” But the designer of the ad, self-described “guerrilla media guru” Tony Schwartz, who also ran Lyndon Johnson’s media campaign during the 1964 presidential election, told the Wall Street Journal that “I’m retracting my support for the ad” because it was factually incorrect. On the “20/20” segment, Schwartz told John Stossel that Food and Water, Inc., had behaved in a “sleazy” manner.
The “consumer activists” at Food and Water, Inc., and at CSPI have urged the federal government to employ thousands of additional meat inspectors instead of permitting a more widespread use of irradiation. But such a regulatory onslaught is bound to be completely unproductive. Professor James Steele of the University of Texas School of Public Health has written that E. coli “is not known to cause any diseases with clinical signs in cattle. Cattle are passive carriers of this virulent form of colon bacteria and there is no way the Federal inspectors can identify a carrier animal by physical examination.”
Allan Forbes, the former director of the FDA’s Office of Nutrition and Food Sciences, hit the nail on the head when he said of Food and Water, Inc., CSPI, and other so-called consumer organizations that “they’ve lost sight of what the public interest is. Food irradiation is safe beyond the slightest question. It’s a sad commentary, but it’s clear to me that these groups make their living by creating fear about issues like this.”
For three years, this fear-mongering was apparently enough to encourage the FDA to delay its regulatory approval of irradiation for red meat. The FDA literally killed American citizens by denying them the right to decide for themselves whether they wanted irradiated food. FDA regulation was infinitely more hazardous to health than food irradiation could ever conceivably be.
- American Spice Trade Association, “What Consumers Really Think About Irradiated Foods,” (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: ASTA, 1995), p. 3.
- World Health Organization, “Safety and Nutritional Adequacy of Irradiated Food” (Washington, D.C.: WHO, May 27, 1992), p. 52.
- Nation’s Pride, “Increase Sales with Fresh Irradiated Produce” (Plant City, Fla.: Nation’s Pride, 1994).
- “Radiation Exposed Food,” Test of National Radio Advertisement by Food and Water, Inc., 1990.
- Bruce Ingersoll, “Schwartz Disavows Ad Denouncing Food Irradiation” (Kanata, Ont., Canada: Nordion International, July 1996).
- Quoted in John Berlau, “Irradiation, Not More Regulation, for Greater Food Safety,” Consumer Alert Issue Brief (Washington, D.C.: Consumer Alert, 1996).
- Larry Katzenstein, “Good Food You Can’t Get,” Reader’s Digest, July 1993, p. 47.