Don't Nuke My Burger

Information collected byBy Rio Palley

The Food and Drug Administration approved a petition Dec. 2 to allow the exposure of meat to low doses of radiation to kill bacteria like the dangerous E. coli 0157:H7. But not everyone is crazy about the prospect of nuked burgers; at least one consumer advocacy group is vowing to fight the practice with boycotts.

Food irradiation has long been controversial. The technology, an outgrowth of the Cold War Atoms for Peace program, has been promoted by nuclear-power advocates and meat industry lobbyists and has strong supporters in the government.

In its most common form, food is exposed to low-dosage cobalt-60 radiation that kills microorganisms - both dangerous and benign - by disrupting their DNA structure. Irradiation is widely used to sterilize medical equipment as well as such consumer products as baby-bottle nipples and cotton swabs. Widescale irradiation of food, however, has long been stalled for lack of government approval, questions about safety, and consumer resistance.

Over the last decade, both the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have approved irradiation of dry herbs and spices, pork, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. But permission to irradiate red meat was lacking until the FDA's recent action.

While irradiation primary extends shelf life on other products, with something like ground beef the destruction of bacteria can be marketed as a lifesaver.

Support for irradiation has escalated in the meat industry in the wake of contamination scandals like the recall of 25 million pounds of ground beef by Hudson Foods this past summer.

Colby, irradiation's most vocal critic, fears acceptance of the procedure will bring not only nuclear proliferation, but also environmental and worker safety problems.

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