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FDA, Opponents Debate Safety Of Food Irradiation

October 21, 1987

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Food irradiation came under attack Wednesday in a debate on the safety and health risks of the process which kills insects and preserves produce.

Rep. Douglas H. Bosco, D-Calif., sponsor of legislation to prove the safety of food irradiation before implementing it, questioned the Food and Drug Administration’s review of the process, while Rep. Sid Morrison, R-Wash., defended the FDA and voiced support for the procedure.

Richard Piccioni, a senior staff scientist with Accord Research and Educational Associates in New York City, criticized the Food and Drug Administration, saying the federal agency is unable to determine the effect of the procedure on foods.

″When you expose food to ionizing radiation you have no idea was the change is,″ Piccioni said at a debate on food irradiation.

″Food is not a defined substance. When you expose all those molecules, you have no idea what the chemical composition is,″ he said.

However, a representative of the FDA defended the procedure, citing studies the agency reviewed before approving the use of irradiation in April 1986.

″The effect on nutritional value is negligible. The microbiological effect is also low,″ George Pauli, who coordinates safety reviews of food and color additives, told the audience of scientists, nutritionists and journalists. ″From where we are, we don’t see a problem.″

The technology of food irradiation has existed for decades, but interest in using the costly process has grown recently with bans or restrictions placed on a number of chemical fumigants and pesticides found to be potential health hazards.

Under the process, the food itself does not become radioactive. Radiation, unlike pesticides, passes through fruits and vegetables without leaving a residue. Proponents compare it to a briefcase passing through an X-ray machine at an airport.

The concern is that the gamma rays passing through the food produce what chemists call free radicals which create new chemicals in the food.

The FDA believes the new chemicals are so similar to natural chemicals they pose no unusual risk and, at any rate, are created in insignificant amounts.

Piccioni argued that the FDA is unable to test the new chemicals in the food on experimental animals as they normally do with additives or pesticides.

″With food dye, you expose the experimental animals to determine the carcinogen,″ he said. ″You multiply it 1,000 times the case and with arithmetic determine safe levels.″

Increasing the amount of food consumed by test animals or increasing the levels of irradiation of food is not possible, Piccioni said. ″If you increase the dose (of radiation) 1,000 times, you don’t have food anymore, you have carbon dioxide and water,″ he said.

Pauli responded that even experimental animal testing has its limitations.

″The only thing you know is safe to eat are the additives and the pesticides. You don’t know about anything else,″ he said.

Last year, the FDA approved the use of radiation up to 100,000 rads, which is equal to about 3 million chest X-rays, on pork and produce. Most food irradiation consists of much less than that.

The FDA has said it has seen no evidence supporting allegations of danger in irradiated food. The agency said changes that occur in the process are similar to those that might occur through cooking, canning or freezing.

The procedure has been used for 13 years in Japan to treat potatoes, in China for poultry, fish and vegetables, in Mexico for mangoes and citrus, and in South Africa, Chile and Europe.

Food processors in the United States have not begun to use the procedure, which requires considerable investment, on those products. However, some imported fruits that have been irradiated are sold on the American market.

Last year, imported mangoes treated with low levels of radiation to kill insects went on the market in Florida.

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