Schools may get to serve federally supplied irradiated meat to students, under a policy shift that was in the works before a listeria outbreak sent cafeteria workers scurrying to clean out their refrigerators last month.
The federal law that provides assistance to American farmers, approved in May, had already paved the way for irradiated foods to be served through the federal school lunch program. But more attention is being paid to irradiation—which kills bacteria and parasites that can cause illness—since the disclosure that 1.8 million pounds of turkey for schools came from a supply tainted with potentially dangerous listeria bacteria.
Despite a recall of the tainted meat, some of it made onto school lunch tables, though no illnesses have been reported.
Sometime before the end of the year, the Department of Agriculture will make an announcement involving irradiation and ground beef supplied to schools through the lunch program, said Jerry R. Redding, a USDA spokesman, who would not elaborate. But he did say that school districts will get irradiated meat only if they request it.
“The Food and Nutrition Service polls the school districts,” Mr. Redding said. “If they say they want it, we’ll buy it.”
The federal government approved the sale of irradiated meat in 1999, but it was barred from being used in the school lunch program. A clause in the farm bill lifted that prohibition, Mr. Redding said.
Irradiated food has been deemed safe by the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association. According to information from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the process uses ionizing radiation to kill bacteria and “does not harm the nutritional value of food, nor does it make the food unsafe to eat.”
But some groups remain concerned. Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer- advocacy organization, opposes irradiated foods, especially for schools, said Monique M. Mikhail, an organizer for Public Citizen’s food-irradiation policy team. Ms. Mikhail said her group believes long-term studies need to be done. She said that irradiation leaves “radiolytic products” in the food, and that some recent studies had shown eating irradiated foods promoted the growth of cancer in rats.
“If there’s any question about the safety of this technology, why serve irradiated food to this country’s children?” she said. Ms. Mikhail said cafeterias would not be required to label irradiated food, “obstructing the parent’s right to know what their children are eating.”
Was Action Too Slow?
Instead, the government should focus on cleaning up the meat industry, Ms. Mikhail said.
Last month, an outbreak of the listeria monocytogenes bacteria at the Wampler Foods plant in Franconia, Pa., prompted the recall of 27.4 million pounds of cooked turkey and chicken products—the largest recall of its kind in USDA history. The department has purchased about 1.8 million pounds of that turkey for the school lunch program. Listeria can cause severe illness and death in some cases.
Following the recall, some lawmakers, school officials, and others expressed worries that it had taken too long to initiate that step.
Nancy J. Donley, the president of the Burlington, Vt.- based Safe Tables Our Priority, said federal officials should have alerted schools earlier. Instead, the lag time meant some students were served the Wampler meat.
In the Cumberland Valley school district in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for example, officials didn’t get the word they had received Wampler meat until after it had served 52 pounds of turkey at a salad bar.
“To wait until the last minute with your most vulnerable population is just unconscionable,” Ms. Donley said.
But Steven Cohen, a spokesman for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, said that other than a minor delay for a holiday, schools were notified quickly. “The system worked as designed,” he said.
Whether students and parents will tolerate cafeterias’ use of irradiated meats is anyone’s guess. Information campaigns could make a difference.
In New York state, a group called Rochestarians Against the Misuse of Pesticides is pushing school districts to adopt resolutions against serving irradiated foods. To date, none have done so.
But in Minnesota, where the benefits of irradiation have been touted publicly and grocery stores and some restaurants carry irradiated meat, parents and students may be more welcoming.
“We anticipate irradiated meat will be available in the next year or two”’ through the school lunch program, said Mary S. Begalle, the director of food and nutrition services for the Minnesota Department of Children, Families, and Learning. “We want local groups to get good information on this option to help them make decisions.”
Because of concerns with the recall process, irradiation could provide an added measure of protection, said the American Meat Institute’s president and chief executive officer, J. Patrick Boyle.
“Irradiation,” Mr. Boyle said. “provides an extra margin of safety.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Irradiation Option For School Meat Moves Forward Despite Concerns