Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted its ban on irradiated ground beef in the national school lunch program despite widespread concerns from parents and consumer groups about the safety of irradiated food products.
The decision by the USDA gives local school districts the option to purchase irradiated beef commodities from the federal government to feed the nearly 27 million students that participate in the school lunch program nationwide. Currently USDA commodities account for all of the meat, poultry and cheese used in the program.
This year, the federal government purchased 132 million pounds of ground beef for the federal school lunch program, so the irradiated beef industry could be greatly impacted by the USDA move. By lifting the prohibition of irradiated meat in the program, the USDA could become the largest distributor of irradiated food in the world.
Opponents of the new USDA measure say that consumption of irradiated food is not scientifically proven to be safe and therefore should irradiated beef should not be served in schools.
“We have said all along that we don�t think school kids are the place to start serving irradiated ground beef,” said Arthur S. Jaeger, associate director of the Consumer Federation of America.
Proponents, like the FDA and the beef industry, say that irradiation, whereby the meat is exposed to low doses of electrons to kill disease-causing microorganisms like e-coli, is an integral part of protecting the public from food-borne illnesses and has a proven record of safety. The FDA approved the process of irradiation nearly 20 years ago, and in 1999 the USDA approved the sale of irradiated meat products in grocery stores. Right now, irradiated meat accounts for less than five percent of total meat sales.
Recently, however, a three-year European study found that the chemical byproducts found in irradiated foods led to increased development of colon cancer and DNA damage in rats. The authors of the study concluded that further studies were ‘absolutely necessary’ to confirm the extent to which these chemical byproducts harm the human body.
“The scientific debate over the safety of meat irradiation is far from conclusive,’ wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), an ally of concerned consumer groups and parents. ‘It also remains uncertain how these health effects could be compounded in the bodies of developing children.”