I admire Mother Jones for its reputation of a century of critical watchdog reporting. So I was a little perplexed to see a column uncritically praising irradiation. What’s worse, the column included some serious misstatements about the known issues plaguing the technology that has justifiably concerned the public for decades.The article laments that sales of irradiated beef at Wegman’s, an East Coast grocery chain, are low, likely because shoppers see irradiated products as “creepy and unsafe.”
It goes on to interview two experts; the meat merchandising manager from Wegmans, who said, “Some people even think their food is going to be radioactive…which is just totally not how this works.” A foodborne illness expert is quoted as saying, “Food irradiation shows absolutely no detrimental impact on the food.”
On the contrary, there is plenty of evidence that food irradiation diminishes the quality of the food. Numerous published studies have shown potential mutagenic effects (meaning it could cause damage to genes in mammals.) A study in 2001 linked colon tumor promotion in laboratory rats to new chemical compounds found only in irradiated foods. What’s more, it can affect the appearance, odor, texture and taste of foods. Published reports have described irradiated beef as smelling “burnt”, tasting like “singed hair.”
No wonder the efforts to mass-market irradiated meat have failed miserably.
The article goes on to liken irradiation “doubters” or “rejecters” to those in the anti-vaccine movement. It’s a disingenuous argument that the food industry has doled out to those skeptical of industrial food technologies like GMOs, and it’s always infuriating to hear journalists run with it.
An honest look at the independent studies, where they exist, shows that these techno fixes aren’t as rosy as the industry would have you believe. It’s unfortunate that Mother Jones didn’t look at the independent research on known effects that irradiation has on food quality and at least mention the possible safety risks associated with the technology.
The meat industry has been trying -– and failing –- to convince us to eat irradiated food for decades, even going so far as to lobby the federal government to let them call it “pasteurized” instead of irradiated. Their efforts have largely failed because people want real food safety protections, like good sanitation and strong government inspection in meat plants, not a technological quick fix with serious side effects like irradiation. It’s a shame to see Mother Jones doing the meat industry’s work for them.