Zapped Meat For School Lunches

Despite lingering fears about irradiated meat, the Agriculture Department is moving forward with putting the specially sanitized meat into the national school lunch program by 2004, a department official said Thursday.

The federal program feeds 28 million low-income school children every day, but not all of them will be eating irradiated meat. Schools will not be required to put it on the menu, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Still, the government must have it on hand for those that want it.

The agency will soon begin accepting bids from companies that want to supply the federal lunch program, the official said.

Congress last year ordered the department to start accepting irradiation as a method of sanitizing meat for the national school lunch program. 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.

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.

Thousands of parents and consumer advocates have protested the decision to allow schools to buy the sanitized meat for meals, expressing fears that too little is known about the long-term effects of continuous consumption of the product.

The consumer group Public Citizen argues irradiation could cause cancer, but studies have shown that irradiated food is safe.

Many doctors and scientists strongly support the department's decision to put the special meat in the lunch program, say irradiation is effective in preventing deadly cases of food poisoning.

More than 5,000 people die each year from foodborne illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems are especially vulnerable.

In 1997, the Food and Drug Administration deemed irradiation as a safe method of killing off bacteria that can cause food poisoning.