Irradiated food barred from DC school lunches

WASHINGTON, DC, May 21, 2004 (ENS): District of Columbia students will not be eating irradiated hamburgers any time soon. The District of Columbia Board of Education voted eight to one on Wednesday night in favor of a resolution that forbids the 167 schools in the DC system from purchasing irradiated food for any of its meal programs for five years.

Although the school system does not now serve irradiated food, it could choose to do so. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last year approved the use of irradiated ground beef in the National School Lunch Program. The program provides free or reduced price school lunches to 27 million children annually. Sixty percent of the more than 65,000 students in the DC school system qualify for the federally subsidized meal program.

The school officials’ decision was welcomed by nonprofit organizations Public Citizen and the Youth Education Alliance, who had lobbied the Board of Education to ban irradiated food.

“We’re happy that the school board banned irradiated meat because we didn’t want students to be worried about what was on their lunch trays,” said Mayonna Bangura, youth organizer for the Youth Education Alliance and a 10th grade student at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School. “It’s a first step in the right direction towards healthy, safe and better tasting lunches.”

The groups said banning irradiated food from school cafeterias is one way to safeguard students who would otherwise have no way to protect themselves from eating meat that has been treated with the controversial irradiation technology. Irradiation exposes food to a dose of ionizing radiation to kill bacteria.

Federal law states that while irradiated meat must be labeled in grocery stores, it does not have to be labeled when served in school cafeterias, restaurants or hospitals.

While the USDA says irradiated foods are safe, critics of the process say it produces chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens. Research presented to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2001 has shown that one class of these chemicals, cyclobutanones, promotes cancer development as well as causes genetic damage to human cells.

Public Citizen and the Center for Food Safety asked the FDA in November 2001 to refrain from legalizing irradiation for any additional types of food until cyclobutanones are tested for safety.

The students also called on the board to improve the quality, safety and wholesomeness of food served in D.C. schools.

A recent WJLA (Channel 7) report revealed that 143 of 155 District schools needed “immediate action” to clean up their cafeterias. "Contributing to the filthy state of the cafeterias were rodent feces, spiders and dead insects, along with insulation materials that had fallen into the food preparation area because of aging building conditions," the TV program was quoted as saying.

Irradiation does not help prevent food contamination in any of these situations. The procedure cannot prevent cross-contamination once packages are opened nor can it kill the abnormal protein that causes mad cow disease.

“Instead of spending more money on irradiated meat – which will not solve the most common contamination problems in DC’s cafeterias – we can now focus on bringing fresher and healthier ingredients to improve students’ lunches,” said Monique Mikhail, organizer for Public Citizen’s Safe Lunch Campaign.

Irradiated meat is not popular with schools. To date, no school district has purchased irradiated meat through the USDA for the 2004-2005 school year.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2004. All Rights Reserved.

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