The U.S. Department of Agriculture has lifted its ban on irradiated ground beef in the National School Lunch Program, paving the way for districts to serve the specially treated meat in federally subsidized student meals as early as next year.
Whether schools bite remains to be seen.
Irradiation, the process of bombarding food with gamma rays, X-rays, or electrons to kill disease-causing microbes, is mired in controversy.
The federal government, the American School Food Service Association, and the meat industry say it’s a proven method for safeguarding the nation’s consumers from dangerous food-borne bacteria, such as salmonella, listeria, and E. coli.
“The chances of coming into contact with a dangerous pathogen is much less likely with an irradiated product,” said Elsa Murano, the USDA undersecretary for food safety, speaking at a May 29 press conference held to announce the department’s decision.
Responding to direction from Congress in the 2002 farm bill that ordered the USDA not to exclude approved food-safety technologies from the federal school meal programs, the agency wrote regulations specifically allowing irradiated ground beef for the subsidized meals. It acted over the opposition of several consumer groups and thousands of people who filed objections with the Agriculture Department earlier this year.
Irradiation has emerged as an issue for meal programs against a backdrop of rising concern over food-borne illnesses at schools. (“Tainted Food on the Rise in Cafeterias,” June 4, 2003.)
Critics of irradiation argue that its effects on human health and the nutritional value of food need more study before the technique is used on products served to the 27 million children who rely on the federal government’s subsidized school meals.
U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy echoed those concerns in a May 27 letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman. Citing studies linking irradiation with higher cancer rates, along with uncertainty over “how these health effects could be compounded in the bodies of developing children,” the Vermont Democrat argued that parents should be able to choose what their children eat—and what they don’t.
To Label or Not
On that matter, USDA officials say their hands are tied.
“Each school district will have the option to choose between irradiated and non-irradiated ground-beef products and will decide how to notify parents and students if they choose to offer them,” Eric M. Bost, the Agriculture Department’s undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services said at last month’s press briefing.
Tony Valentine, the general manager of the SureBeam Corp., displays irradiated meat April 18 at the company’s Illinois plant.
“The USDA doesn’t have the authority to require that schools inform parents and students about whether or not the district will be ordering irradiated beef,” Mr. Bost said, “but we’re strongly encouraging schools to provide information ... as part of the decisionmaking process.”
In grocery stores, irradiated foods are clearly marked with a symbol called a radura, a stylized flower inside a circle. But no law requires schools to label irradiated food in their lunch lines.
“Food- service managers will know when they order irradiated meat, but it will be up to the individual school whether or not to label it when it’s served to students,” said Monique Mikhail, an organizer with Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen.
Having lost the battle to keep irradiated food out of school meal programs altogether, Public Citizen has taken its opposition campaign to the local level, helping parents and teachers fight for bans and restrictions on irradiated food in schools around the country, Ms. Mikhail said.
In districts that won’t prohibit irradiated foods in school meals outright, the group at least wants local officials to disclose the purchase of such foods to parents and alert students with lunch-line labels. Only two districts have banned irradiated food so far, both in California.
Last November, the school board of the 9,400-student Berkeley district voted to prohibit the use of irradiated foods in its breakfast, lunch, and snack programs. Four months later, the board of the 500-student Point Arena schools, located on the Pacific coast north of San Francisco, did the same.
The Point Arena district’s school board president, William P. Meyers, said he raised the issue with fellow board members after receiving an e-mail from Public Citizen, because “I was struck by the way this product was just immediately coming into the schools—it didn’t seem like a well-thought-out, democratic process.”
The issue fractured a normally unified school board and drew crowds to the board’s meetings.
On one side were people concerned that eating irradiated food poses significant health risks and who want further study, especially before it’s served to schoolchildren.
Those who opposed Mr. Meyer’s ban were equally concerned about children’s health. They argued that food irradiation is a safeguard, not a threat.
“There’s been more study of irradiation than any other type of food treatment,” said board member Michael B. Combs, who voted against the ban. “It reduces children’s exposure to salmonella and other food-borne illnesses that result from storage and handling.”
The prohibition passed 4-2, with one board member absent.
Mr. Meyers predicts other districts in his state will follow suit.
“This is California, and anywhere you go in California ... people are concerned about their health. When people in this state hear about something like irradiation, they’re suspicious.”
Federal health officials dispute claims that irradiation threatens human health and point to decades of research on it. The process is also endorsed by a host of prominent health groups, including the World Health Organization, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Medical Association.
“Irradiated food is the same as non-irradiated food in terms of its health effects,” the USDA’s Ms. Murano said.
To test that message on schools and communities, the Agriculture Department paid for a $151,000 informational pilot program this year in Minnesota.
The state education department agreed to tailor educational materials about irradiation and evaluate their effectiveness. The results of the project will form the basis of the Agriculture Department’s nationwide effort to educate schools and communities about food irradiation.
Some interest groups accused the USDA of using the Minnesota pilot to spread pro-irradiation literature, a charge denied by Mary S. Begalle, the state education department’s director for food and nutrition services, who oversaw the program.
“An important feature of this [pilot] was that it not promote or encourage schools to use irradiated meat,” Ms. Begalle said. “And we did include the Web sites of groups that oppose irradiation.”
But the educational materials distributed under the program do more to make a case for irradiation than against it, dismissing as “myths” the contention that the process destroys the nutritional content of food and produces cancer-causing chemicals.
Congress only directed the Agriculture Department “not to exclude from the school meal programs safety technologies that are deemed safe,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, an assistant secretary of agriculture in the Carter administration who now heads the Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute. “They didn’t tell the USDA it had to run out and start a pilot project and put out educational materials pushing irradiation.
“Nobody told them to be a cheerleader,” she said, “and they’re being a cheerleader.”