by Marion Nestle
Oct 8 2009

Should we irradiate meat?

In response to the revelations about meat safety (or the lack thereof) in the New York Times comes a letter from J. Patrick Boyle, President and Chief Executive of the American Meat Institute.  Mr. Boyle’s letter is worth reading:

  • It contains not a trace of apology.
  • It says meat is much safer now due to industry efforts.
  • It considers E. coli O157:H7 a “fact of nature” like floods or flu (i.e., unpreventable).
  • It blames the USDA for meat safety problems.

Why the USDA?  The USDA will not let meat packers irradiate carcasses to sterilize them.

Is irradiation the key to meat safety?  It kills bacteria, no question.  And it does not make meat radioactive.  But the sterilization is incomplete and temporary and irradiated food must be handled like fresh food.

As I discuss in my book, Safe Food, E. coli O157:H7 most definitely is preventable.  That is why I view irradiation as a late stage techno-fix.  It zaps dirty meat and lets this industry get away with producing dirty meat in the first place.

Nobody ever explained the problem with irradiation better than Carol Tucker Foreman, now at Consumers Federation of America: “sterilized poop is still poop.”

  • Jeff

    This quote from Dr. Samuel Epstein, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Medicine, University of Illinois School of Public Health, Chicago:

    “Irradiated meat is a very different product than natural meat. This is hardly surprising as the Food and Drug Administration’s approved dosage of 450,000 rads is approximately 150 million times greater than that of a chest x-ray. Apart from high levels of benzene, new chemicals known as ‘unique radiolytic products’ were identified in irradiated meat in US Army tests in 1977, and recognized as carcinogenic. Later tests identified other chemicals shown to induce genetic toxicity.”

    I just hope labeling laws require irradiated meat to be identified as such so I can avoid buying the stuff.

  • Anthro

    I don’t think irradiation is the answer because of the things you spell out in the post, but I have always been skeptical of the “fear” arguments such as posted by Jeff and attributed to seemingly qualified authorities. Can you elaborate on the professor’s statement, Marion?

  • Matt

    We need to do a better job with our food supply than dealing with lax standards by irradiating the feces that end up in our meat. I won’t buy it not because I believe it to be unsafe due to the fact that it was irradiated, but because of the trend it promotes.

  • NO!

  • Cindy

    There is only one industry more corrupt than banking/finance in this country, and that’s big agriculture.

  • Jill

    Thanks for taking a stand against irradiation of meat.

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  • Anthro

    Thanks, Matt and For the Love of Food: Good comments and you’ve helped me firm up my position on this.

  • Aliza

    There was also an interesting piece on meat on NPR earlier this week: