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Radioactive Mail

by Michael Colby

For fifty years the purveyors of irradiation have been looking for a purpose. It all began, of course, in the 1950s under President Eisenhower’s Atomic Energy Commission, specifically its “Atoms for Peace” program. The U.S. was awash in nuclear waste materials, particularly cesium-137, and it was quickly becoming the Achilles heel of the burgeoning nuclear establishment. Eisenhower, therefore, established the Atoms for Peace program with the specific directive to find peaceful uses for this nuclear waste material. But more than simply finding a use for nuclear garbage, the nuclear establishment wanted to eliminate the cloud of war that surrounded all things nuclear and, instead, demonstrate to U.S. citizens that there were peaceful civilian uses for these new “wonder isotopes.”

After scrapping ideas such as manufacturing nuclear replacement hearts for cardiac patients, the Atoms for Peace program set its long-term sights on exposing the food supply to radiation. And food irradiation was born.

The reasoning given at the time was “shelf-life.” Remember, fifty years ago E.coli, salmonella, and factory farming weren’t on the nation’s agenda. But we were thinking about how to make food last for long periods of time, especially amidst the Cold War mentality that, interestingly enough, had people building nuclear fall-out shelters. And the first thing on people’s minds when they thought of hunkering down in a hole for the duration of a nuclear winter was usually “what in the hell are we going to eat?”

Ta-da: nuclear food for nuclear winters. It was a match made in cesium heaven.

In fact, some of the first scientific promoters of food irradiation used to love to haul out their 30-plus year old cans of “irradiated chicken meat” to flaunt their technological prowess. I remember when Dr. Ed Josephson, a former Army scientist and one of the grandfathers of irradiation, brought his can of the old meat to a congressional hearing in the mid-1980s when the Reagan administration was about to issue its sweeping approvals for food irradiation.

After a mumbling testimony about how safe it was to expose foods to radiation doses equivalent to tens of millions of chest x-rays, the crusty and very unhealthy looking Josephson proudly declared that he’d been “eating it for years” and he was fine. Even the right-wingers sitting in the room could barely contain themselves, each seemingly making a mental note to tell Josephson that there must be a better way for him to testify.

And Josephson went one step further. Reaching into his briefcase he pulled out a can of the irradiated chicken meat, a can opener, a knife, a plate, and a stash of toothpicks. “This has been on my shelf for over 20 years,” declared Josephson as he popped the top of the can and began dicing the pale meat into bite sized squares. “And it’s still very good.”

But, other than Josephson and his colleagues within the irradiation industry, there were no takers. And I will always remember the look on Representative Henry Waxman’s face as the plate of pasty meat was thrust in front of him. He wasn’t about to partake in this impromptu experiment.

The Reagan administration did eventually grant the first widespread approvals for food irradiation in 1986, when fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, spices, and flavorings were approved. And each subsequent administration has done its share to further the range of approvals, to the point now that practically everything we consume has been approved to be exposed to huge doses of radiation ? including meat, poultry and seafood.

But there’s always been one big problem with food irradiation: the public doesn’t want anything to do with it. And the irradiation corporations have had to change their purpose time and time again to try and find a niche for their unseemly nuclear wares. Gone were the days that irradiation was promoted as a peaceful use for nuclear waste material, or that it was a way to keep bad meat edible for decades. Now we were into the realm of “needing” irradiation to fix all the problems of a filthy meat industrial complex, particularly E.coli and salmonella.

The American public, however, seemed more willing to give up meat than be forced to eat meat that had been exposed to both fecal matter and 75 million chest x-rays. Yum, yum.

But as I’ve learned in more than 15 years of fighting all forms of irradiation, this industry always seems to pull yet another trick out of its bag no matter how close to death it gets.

Enter anthrax. CP

Michael Colby is the editor of the Food & Water Journal. His latest story for CounterPunch was Mailroom Manifesto.

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