Food Irradiation Expert Refutes New York Times Article

Loaharanu is referring to an Oct. 15 New York Times article in which columnist Marian Burrows cites research she says will deter consumer support of irradiated foods, particularly ground beef, in school lunch programs. Starting in January, U.S. public school districts will be able to buy irradiated beef under the federal school lunch program. In her piece, "Question on Irradiated Foods," Loaharanu

Loaharanu is referring to an Oct. 15

New York Times

article in which columnist Marian Burrows cites research she says will deter consumer support of irradiated foods, particularly ground beef, in school lunch programs. Starting in January, U.S. public school districts will be able to buy irradiated beef under the federal school lunch program.

In her piece, "Question on Irradiated Foods," Loaharanu says Burrows, without really understanding the scientific facts, "seems to be looking for ways to find fault with food irradiation, even though the technology is proven to be safe."

He likens Burros' arguments to that of the "medieval mentality" that prompted witch hunts simply because folks believed there must be a witch to be hunted.

"When the witch was not found, the hunters claimed that perhaps they did not hunt long or hard enough. So they kept on hunting, hoping that they would find a witch," Loaharanu says. So it is with irradiation naysayers, he adds.

For more than 20 years, the Vienna, Austria-based Thailand native headed the Food and Environmental Protection Section of the UN's joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Division. He also managed the Secretariat of the International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation (ICGFI) from its establishment under the aegis of FAO, IAEA and World Health Organization (WHO) in 1984 until he retired from UN service in mid 2002.

Loaharanu initiated the international standards and guidelines in the field of food irradiation adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC). CAC is the legitimate global standard-setting body that protects consumer health and ensures fair practice in food trade.

He also has coordinated more than 20 international food irradiation research projects and assisted more than 30 developing countries in introducing research, development and commercial application on food irradiation.

He co-organized the First World Congress on Food Irradiation, held in Chicago in May. And, he currently serves on the faculty for the online professional Master of Food Safety program at Michigan State University and is spearheading development of an International Council on Food Irradiation to disseminate science-based information on food irradiation.

Loaharanu is also working to set the record straight regarding the Burrows article.

In her piece, Burrows says, "the European Parliament decided last year to put a moratorium on the irradiation of almost all food." She then reports that, in determining that irradiation was a safe way to prevent bacterial contamination, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reviewed tests in which animals were fed irradiated food.

"Opponents of irradiation say, though, that the meat in those tests did not have enough of the substances considered in the European tests -- 2-ACBs (alkylcyclobutanones) -- to determine its safety," she wrote. "The only way to determine the effects of a lifetime's exposure to questionable substances like 2-ACBs, they say, is to test them in an isolated form."

"Ms. Burrows' article is very misleading," Loaharanu emphasizes. "The scientific facts are clear, even if she did not bring them to light."

For starters, Loaharanu says the European Parliament didn't enact a moratorium on irradiation, "either last year or any other year. It was the European Commission (EC) that issued a directive (regulation) in 1999 that approved irradiated aromatic herbs, spices and seasonings."

The EC has the jurisdiction to introduce laws, including food laws and regulations, in all European Union (EU) member countries.

"The regulation provides for approving other irradiated foods in the future once all EU countries reach a consensus on additional irradiated foods," Loaharanu says. "Moreover, the FDA approved the use of irradiation for fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and eggs before the study on potential toxicity of 2-alkylcyclobutanones was first published in 1999."

These 2-ACBs are chemical compounds created in trace amounts (microgram levels) by the irradiation of triglycerides, most notably fat-containing foods such as chicken and beef. Although 2-ACBs are stable in irradiated foods stored at room temperature, the compounds decompose slightly when exposed to heat, light and oxygen. Therefore, the level of 2-ACBs in cooked, irradiated foods at time of consumption would likely be lower than that measured in raw irradiated foods.

"There's absolutely no reason to be alarmed over the presence of 2-ACBs in irradiated foods," Loaharanu says. "The production of these compounds during irradiation is similar to the normal production of benzene, acrylamide, and benzopyrine when certain foods are heated."

Boiled eggs, for example, contain trace amounts of benzene. Potato chips, French fries and pizza contain acrylamide, and, barbequed meat contains benzopyrine, Loaharanu explains.

"This does not mean that we should stop eating our favorite foods. Nor should we stop using heat to process our foods," Loaharanu emphasizes. "The benefits of heat and irradiation far outweigh minute risks that might occur through processing food with these widely accepted technologies. What's more, foods contain many naturally occurring components that tend to react with potential toxic compounds (if they exist in the foods to begin with) rendering them harmless for consumption."

Burros goes on to say that "among the four peer-reviewed studies of the compounds by a group of French and German scientists that were considered by European officials, the most recent looked at rats that were injected with a substance that produces colon cancer. Some rats were then fed 2-ACBs, while others were not. Those fed 2-ACBs developed bigger and more complex tumors, and three times as many of them.

"The report published in the

Journal of Nutrition and Cancer

in December 2002 warned against 'misusing' the study to discredit irradiation of meat in general," Burrows' article continues. "But in a telephone interview, the leader of the study, Dr. Francis Raul, research director at the French National Institute of Health in Strasbourg, France, said he and his fellow researchers called for more study of 2-ACBs. He added, 'It is perhaps too early to start irradiating beef to give to children.'"

Raul's report on toxicological studies of 2-ACBs only proves one point, Loaharanu says. In their purified form and in high concentrations -- about 500 times more than would be ingested by humans consuming irradiated foods -- 2-ACBs could promote colon cancer.

"The authors of this report put the issue into perspective in their conclusions by stating: 'The relevance of this study to the risk assessment of human consumption of irradiated foods remains to be elucidated,' " Loaharanu says. "And it must be made clear that the report did not assess potential toxicity of irradiated foods containing 2-ACBs, but only of purified and extremely high concentration 2-ACBs."

Irrefutably, in high concentrations and in their purified forms, 2-ACBs, benzene, acrylamide and benzopyrine can be toxic if consumed. However, in their pure and isolated forms, these compounds aren't available in supermarkets. Benzene is widely available at gasoline stations, but no reasonable person is likely to consume it.

Prior to approving irradiation of any foods, FDA considered the potential toxicity of not only 2-ACBs, but other substances irradiation might create, Loaharanu says. But, Burrows reports that officials from the Center for Food Safety and the Public Citizen Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program, two D.C.-based advocacy groups, asked FDA officials to not approve the irradiation of any more foods until the safety of 2-ACBs has been determined by specific testing.

"This is a ridiculous request," Loaharanu says. "Even the Scientific Committee for Food (SCF) of Europe, which is responsible for risk assessment of various food safety issues for the EC, dismissed results of studies on the potential toxicity of 2-ACBs," he reports. In July 2002, the SCF concluded the studies were irrelevant in assessing the safety of irradiated food.

"The SCF based its decision on the results of numerous long-term feeding studies in animals that provided evidence supporting the safety of fat-containing irradiated foods," Loaharanu says.

"None of the animal feeding tests carried out under proper scientific protocols demonstrated any toxic effects attributable to irradiation treatment," he continues. "Over the past four decades, all animal feeding studies and other aspects of wholesomeness of irradiated foods were evaluated by independent groups of experts appointed by FAO, IAEA and WHO."

There were some animal and human feeding studies not performed according to proper scientific protocols that showed some toxic effects of certain irradiated foods, Loaharanu admits. "But overwhelming scientific evidence exists to demonstrate the safety and nutritional adequacy of any foods irradiated as part of Good Manufacturing Practices," he says.

Based on these evaluations, the CAC adopted in July a revised Codex General Standard for Irradiated Foods to allow foods to be irradiated "with any dose if necessary and for legitimate purposes."

Loaharanu says, "The bottom line is that the safety of irradiated foods is clearly and undeniably established scientifically."

In addition to FDA, USDA and WHO, irradiation endorsers include the American Medical Association, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Dietetics Association, and the Institute of Food Technologists, just to name a few.

"I strongly advocate the use of irradiation for foods served in school lunch programs," Loaharanu says. "Children are more vulnerable to food-borne infections than most adults are. In my opinion, to prevent the use of such an effective technology to ensure microbiological safety, is, in effect, denying the right of school children to consume safe food."