2002 saw the single largest meat recall in history-27.4 million pounds of turkey and chicken! Not surprisingly, Americans suffer from foodborne illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 million Americans get sick each year, 325,000 are hospitalized, and about 5,000 die due to foodborne pathogens. The majority of these cases are associated with contaminated meat. Cows, pigs, and chickens are subjected to increasingly deleterious housing and slaughter conditions that encourage bacterial contamination. Nonetheless, when people get sick or die industry representatives and the United States Department of Agriculture quickly blame consumers for not cooking meat thoroughly. Most recently, corporate interests are promoting irradiation as a "solution" to the contamination problem.
Unbeknownst to most Americans, a substantial amount of meat is already irradiated. Food irradiation is the deliberate exposure of food to ionizing radiation in an attempt to kill pathogens that cause illness. Industry representatives advocate irradiation to prevent the public relations disaster of people getting sick and to extend the shelf life of meat for export purposes. Rightly so, there is consumer skepticism of this technology, but in an attempt to deceive the public, industry is petitioning the Food and Drug Administration to rename the process "cold pasteurization" and to request that labeling be voluntary. Currently, irradiated meat products sold in grocery stores must bear the international symbol for irradiation and a statement saying they have been "treated by irradiation." However, there is no labeling requirement for irradiated food served in restaurants, schools, or by other food service providers.
Labeled or not, irradiation neither removes contaminants that cause illness nor addresses how they got there in the first place. Meat contamination coincides with a dramatic increase in inhumane factory farming practices, substantial cutbacks in federal food safety inspectors, and dangerously accelerated line speeds at slaughtering and processing facilities.
The most common sources of contamination are the inherently filthy and inhumane conditions of massive factory farms. The use of irradiation does nothing to reform the cruelty animals suffer in factories where pigs are confined in crowded and barren conditions, where sows are housed in crates so narrow they cannot walk or turn around, and where chickens raised for meat spend their short lives indoors, standing in their own feces. It is in these cramped, dark, damp conditions that bacteria proliferate.
Irradiation also masks cruel conditions in slaughterhouses. Rather than irradiate meat at the end of the processing line, USDA should station inspectors, on a full-time basis, for the purpose of enforcing the Humane Slaughter Act, at those critical points in the handling and slaughtering process where violations are most common, such as the unloading and handling areas and the stunning and bleeding areas. Furthermore, line speeds in slaughterhouses must be drastically reduced. Current line speeds prevent animals from being stunned in accordance with the Humane Slaughter Act. Improperly stunned animals thrash about in unnecessary pain and fear resulting in the contamination of meat with partially digested food or fecal matter.
Far from being a solution, irradiation masks the food safety problems caused by inhumane conditions at factory farms and slaughterhouses. AWI will continue to work for comprehensive food safety policies that protect farm animals and prevent foodborne illness.