Every day, 27 million children sit down in school cafeterias to eat a plateful of government-supplied food. The meals consist of typical lunch fare—burgers, green beans, pizza, apples, lasagna. But thanks to federal approval of a new technology, schools soon might add a helping of controversy: irradiated meat.

Congress last year directed the Agriculture Department to accept irradiation as a method of sanitizing meat for the national school lunch program.

The idea seemed reasonable to lawmakers. The department itself deemed the technology safe in 1999 after concluding that its benefits—preventing food poisoning—outweighed the risk of any potential side effects.

As schools wait for the government to offer them the chance to buy the meat, fears about irradiated food have resurfaced. Parents and consumer groups worry such meat has unknown long-term health effects and want more research.

Irradiation involves directing gamma rays produced by the radioactive material, cobalt 60, or electricity at meat to kill harmful bacteria. Research shows that most of the radiation passes through without being absorbed. The small amount that does remain kills the bacteria.

Leigh Davis said she imagines that one of her 17-year-old son’s staples, turkey sandwiches, could be one meal featuring irradiated meat.

“It’s just one more thing that we’ve got to worry about kids ingesting and being exposed to,” said Davis, of Cranford, N.J. “You don’t know what the impact of that is 20 years later.”

The Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service has determined that consumers are slow to accept irradiated meat, partly because they have not been informed about its benefits. The department recently awarded a $151,000 grant to Minnesota for a campaign to teach parents about irradiation in three of the state’s school districts.

Jean Daniel, a department spokeswoman, said the success of the project will be seen by whether any of the schools buy irradiated meat. “Even if it’s offered, it will be up to local schools to decide if they’ll have irradiated products,” she said.

Minnesota on the whole appears to support the technology. It is home to International Dairy Queen Inc., a fast food chain specializing in soft-serve ice cream that also sells burgers. A hundred of its Minnesota franchises are serving only irradiated burgers as part of a test project that began last year.

The chain has been careful to ensure that customers are aware the hamburgers are irradiated, displaying it on posters and training staff to explain what it means. Dean Peters, a Dairy Queen spokesman, said business has remained steady and executives are considering expanding the program.

“We certainly wouldn’t have gained anything from not telling our consumers about it,” he said. “There would be mistrust if consumers went into a store and got a product, didn’t know that it was irradiated, and then found out that it was.”

Grocery stores increasingly are putting irradiated meat on the shelves. SureBeam Corp., a leading meat irradiation company that kills bacteria with electricity, says few stores sold irradiated meat in 2000 but 5,000 stores offer it now.

Consumers might notice the meat because it is marked with a radura, a symbol that is a circle with what looks like a flower in the middle. Packages also are labeled with “treated with irradiation.”

The Consumer Federation of America’s Food Policy Institute has supported marketing irradiated meat in stores because the technology has proven effective in destroying toxic bacteria. But the group questions the idea of feeding it routinely to schoolchildren.

“There is nowhere on the face of the earth where there is any population that has consumed large amounts of any irradiated food over an extended period of time,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, the institute’s director. “I think it comes close to using the nation’s schoolchildren as guinea pigs.”

A California school district shares her concern. Earlier this year, the school board in Point Arena, Calif., banned irradiated foods from school cafeterias after listening to arguments from an expert on the technology and to representatives of Public Citizen, a group that contends irradiation could cause cancer.

Bill Meyers, chairman of the seven-member Point Arena board, said he would be convinced irradiated meat is safe for the 500 students in his district if a controlled, long-term study proves it is OK.

“It just seems like a fairly clear precautionary principle. The studies haven’t been done,” Meyers said.

To Dr. Peter Berkman, those concerns are unreasonable. An emergency room physician in San Diego, he frequently sees children and adults severely sick with food poisoning, suffering from painful abdominal cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea. Some are on the brink of death.

“What I’ve seen, taking care of children like that, it’s devastating,” said Berkman. “It’s amazing to me that 5,000 people die a year from foodborne illness, and the country yawns.”

Irradiation is one more step in meat processing that could prevent someone from dying of food poisoning, he said.

Links:

Agriculture Department’s National School Lunch Program
http://www.fns.usda.gov/fns

SureBeam Inc.
http://www.surebeam.com