Hold the Cesium, Please! (It Won't be on the Label)

The disasters wrought by petrochemical farming are in the news, so much so that one forgets what happened only two years ago. And this forgetting, too, is part of the problem.

Remember the PCB "scare"? It's still in our environment. How about EDB? Relax, the Environmental Protection Agency says that since EDB was banned, all traces of it have disappeared. (Where to?)

Then there was this summer's story from California, where a lot of people got sick from eating watermelon, and millions of pounds of the fruit were pulled off the shelves and disposed of. (Where to?) Of course, competent authorities assured us that the use of aldicarb on the melons was illegal and a mistake. But I didn't read why it is approved for use on several other major crops. By the way, the chemical used to manufacture aldicarb, methyl isocyanate, was the one that escaped from a Union Carbide factory in Bhopal last December, disabling 25,000 people and killing a couple thousand.

Now the EPA has proposed orders banning daminozide, a common pesticide used primarily on apples, and on captan, one of the most widely used fungicides (10,000,000 pounds used annually in the U.S.). However, the EPA will delay the captan order for two years to allow manufacturers to provide more data. The order says captan poses "an unreasonable risk" of cancer to workers handling it and to persons exposed to it through their diets.

But enough of that. The solution is already at hand -- you might say being forced down our throats. Like the petrochemicals, it's high tech, expensive, and dangerous: Irradiation! Yes, irradiation will enable growers and the businesspeople who control the growers to avoid a lot of those nasty chemicals. Don't worry, we're told, irradiation has been tested for years.

The reality is, it's not known exactly what the nature and effects are of the radiolytic products (new chemicals) produced by irradiation. But take the word of Margaret Heckler, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. In announcing last February the plans for use of irradiation on food, she said that it needn't even be put on the food label:

"There is some concern about the public acceptance for food treated with irradiation. Some education will be necessary, but once the public realizes that ionizing energy is just another form of energy...completely safe, leaving no residues, I am confident there will be widespread agreement on the need for this important technology."

Recently, some people say as a trial balloon, the FDA approved -- a convenient three days before new regulations would have required an environmental impact statement -- the use of irradiation on pork.

All reports on the issue state that the FDA favors allowing irradiation on fresh fruits and vegetables also, probably by the end of this year. Such regulatory approval would forward the proposal to the Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Heckler, and to the Office of Management and Budget, where it also is likely to be approved. The final step, by which point it actually is too late to change anything, is publication in the Federal Register, followed by a 30-day public comment period. At the end of that period the proposed regulation becomes legal, even with public objections.

The proposed regulation will allow the use of up to 100 kilorads to kill insects in produce and extend shelf life. The allowable level for spices, which already are commonly subjected to irradiation, would be increased to 1000 kilorads. Significantly, irradiation would be considered a process, rather than an additive, and a process does not have to be mentioned on the food label. Hence, in some states, activity already is underway by opponents of food irradiation to promote legislation requiring notification on food labels of irradiation treatment.

The bigger picture

Guess which institution in the U.S. has led the testing and development of food irradiation? (Hint: It was for more or less the same that Napoleon ordered the development of canned food.) That's right, the Army. Much of their irradiation research was carried out in the l950s at the Army Quartermaster Corp's Research and Development Command Laboratory in Natick, Massachusetts (in the former congressional district of HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler). Permission for the FDA to adopt regulations concerning irradiation was passed by Congress back in 1958, along with other food additives legislation.

The connection to the military and to the nuclear industry is even more direct when you learn that the source for the material used in food irradiation is reprocessed nuclear wastes. As a Commerce Department report stated: "Any use of cesium-i 37 for irradiation substantially reduces the disposal cost of nuclear plant wastes." The Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington is the only U.S. plant capable of reprocessing high-level wastes. Currently, companies in this country that already are irradiating food are using radioactive cobalt-60 from the Canadian nuclear industry. Last January, Senator Gorton and Representative Morrison from Washington introduced companion bills "to provide Federal coordination for the continued development and commercialization of food irradiation..." All this means that we may soon see parts of the food industry join the nuclear and military industries in lobbying for increased nuclear waste reprocessing.

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Resources on Irradiation

Following are sources of information about the health and technical aspects of the food irradiation issue:

Health & Energy Institute
236 Massachusetts Av. NE, #506
Washington, DC 20002
202/543-1070

The Institute is a private, non-profit research and education organization, whose scientific advisory board includes many persons well known for their efforts toward ending abuse of nuclear energy.

Consumers United for Food Safety (CUFFS)
c/u WashPIRG, FK-30
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195
206/543-0434

CUFFS will send a packet giving in-depth information, including the Health & Energy Institute brochure, articles, and references and addresses for further information. A contribution to cover expenses is requested.

Clyde A. Takeguchi, Div. of Color and Food Additives
Food & Drug Administration
200 C Street SW.
Washington, DC 20204
202/472-5690

Takeguchi is one of the FDA's experts on food irradiation.

FDA Consumer
Superintendent of Documents Government Printing Office
Washington, DC 20402

The July-August 1985 issue gives a good explanation of how FDA regulations are proposed, commented on, and revised. Subscriptions to FDA Consumer are $17.00/year (10 issues).
See other articles from this issue: #001 October - November - 1985