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...

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