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Tougher Testing

Opponents of food irradiation argue that critical tests remain to be done before anyone can say the process is absolutely without risk. Colby argues for standard toxicology tests that would involve irradiating an apple, say, then extracting any radiolytic products that form and feeding those compounds to lab animals at doses hundreds of times higher than that found in irradiated food.

But Josephson, for one, thinks that this exercise is unnecessary. “Why should we feed animals huge doses of these compounds,” he says, “when years of animal-feeding studies have already shown that the small amounts that occur in irradiated food don’t cause any health or reproductive problems?”

Food and Water adviser Donald Louria, chair of preventive medicine and community health at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, would go one step further than Colby. He says government or industry should fund a study in which volunteers of different ages, races, and socioeconomic backgrounds eat irradiated foods under controlled conditions, and then undergo tests to see if they have higher-than-normal levels of cells with chromosomal abnormalities.

On that score, however, the FDA apparently disagrees. Back in 1958, Congress defined irradiation as an additive rather than a process, even though radiation generates the same sorts of chemical byproducts in food as other processes used to preserve and protect food, including freeze drying, frying, sun drying, and canning. And FDA regulations don’t require human studies for food additives, especially when the compounds added are identical to those already found in food, says George Pauli, the FDA’s senior food irradiation scientist.

Ironically, neither Food and Water nor any other group is calling for the FDA to reclassify or restudy other techniques that produce the same byproducts. In fact, until the U.S. Army animal experiments, canned food had never been rigorously tested to see if it caused cancer. “People in the canning industry were holding their breath,” recalls Josephson, “hoping we weren’t going to find that canned food caused problems compared with irradiated food.”

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