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Food Briefs

Questions Over Irradiation Safety

February 05, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The safety of food irradiation was called into question recently by the UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

A strongly critical review of the technology was printed in the Wellness Letter, a 2-year-old publication that represents the department's official position, according to Dale A. Ogar, managing editor.

The recent article stopped short of urging the federal government to ban the process currently sanctioned for limited use on spices, herbs, potatoes, grains, pork and produce.

The report did, however, call for more research on the preservative process because of past studies that indicate irradiation may create cancer agents in foods. The publication also cautioned consumers to limit their consumption of items that undergo the treatment.

Irradiation exposes food to gamma rays given off by cobalt 60 in specially designed facilities that are also used to sterilize surgical equipment. In varying doses, the rays can destroy bacteria, insects and mold that may be present. The procedure thus extends shelf life by stalling the natural deterioration process. No radioactive residue remains after the gamma exposure.

None Available Nationwide

At present, there are no irradiated foods available nationwide.

The newsletter puts the UC Berkeley department at odds with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which last year expanded the approved uses of irradiation to include treatment of produce suspected of infestation. Shortly thereafter, the first irradiated fruit, imported mangoes, were successfully sold on a test basis in a North Miami Beach market.

The newsletter also seems to contradict research efforts based in other segments of the University of California system. For instance, several UC Davis professors have been pioneers in testing the viability of irradiation on certain fruits. However, the newsletter only cites a UC Davis study critical of irradiation--one that found that the process can destroy Vitamin C and cause color, flavor and texture changes in oranges and strawberries.

The criticism is also likely to hamper efforts by agricultural interests to have irradiation facilities available in California in order to combat any future pest problem, such as the costly Mediterranean fruit fly episode of several years ago.

Heightened Presence

As for the cancer issue, the article quotes a study published in 1984 that cited the increased incidence of compounds known as radiolytic products in irradiated foods. The heightened presence of such radiolytic products was listed as one of several possible causes of precancerous conditions found in laboratory animals fed the foods.

"If you buy irradiated foods, (then) limit the amount of them in your diet to diminish your chances of experiencing any unpredictable ill effects," the newsletter suggested.

Ogar said that the school's position had taken a long time to develop and that at least one previous version of the irradiation article had been rejected.

"As research develops and more studies become available then we may change our position," she said. "But taking positions on public health issues is what a school of public health is all about."

Irradiation in Congress--Opponents of food irradiation have also taken their fight to Washington. Legislation is being introduced this week in both the House and Senate that would severely restrict applications of the technology.

Rep. Douglas Bosco, (D-Santa Rosa), has authored a measure that repeals the FDA-approved uses of irradiation for produce and pork. The bill would also require a two-year environmental study of irradiation, restrict the doses used on herbs and spices, stiffen labeling requirements and establish a monitoring system for the facilities employing the process.

An identical bill is also being sponsored by Sen. George J. Mitchell (D-Me.).

In addition to the legislation, the House subcommittee on health and environment, chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, (D-Los Angeles), plans to hold hearings in March on the issue.

Ouch--Nestle's Inc. advertisements for Taster's Choice decaffeinated coffee and the Nestle Decaf brand were recently criticized as divisive by a beverage industry publication. The ads discuss competitors' use of chemicals in order to manufacture caffeine-free products.

Consumers are asked in the ads if they are aware that other companies use methylene chloride or ethyl acetate in order to remove caffeine from coffee. The promotional literature goes on to name those brands that use the chemicals while, at the same time, it claims that only the Nestle products employ water and an oil extracted from the coffee beans to decaffeinate.

"What the ads don't say is that the FDA considers the (chemical) processes perfectly safe--and many coffee experts consider them preferable (to the water method) in retaining flavor," the California Beverage Hotline reported.

The Los Angeles-based newsletter went on to take issue with Nestle's for raising doubts about decaffeinated coffee's overall safety.

" 'Tis an unwise bird that fouls its own nest, and Nestle may be doing just that by inviting consumers to think about irrelevant matters that are unlikely to contribute to increases in consumption of any coffee and may indeed contribute to the long-running decline in consumption of all coffee," the newsletter stated.

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