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AGRICULTURE REPORT December 17, 2002 — Irradiated Meat - 2002-12-16

This is the VOA Special English Agriculture Report.

The United States government has approved methods of destroying bacteria in meat by using radiation. The government says using radiation to kill harmful organisms in meat is safe. The World Health Organization also supports the use of irradiation to control food-related sickness caused by dangerous organisms.

On average, there are more than three-million cases of food-related sicknesses each year in America. About one-thousand-six-hundred deaths are reported. However, studies for the Department of Agriculture say that harmful organisms in food cause as many as seventy-six-million sicknesses each year in the United States. Eighty-one percent of these sicknesses have unknown causes.

Food irradiation can be done in three ways. One process uses a radioactive device made of the elements cobalt or cesium. These substances produce energy called gamma rays. Meat is exposed to gamma rays in a protected space surrounded by thick walls. The food is taken out of the space when it has been exposed to enough radiation. The gamma ray device is always radioactive so it must be stored in a large tank of water.

Another process uses a device similar to one found in televisions. It is called an electron gun. It fires a stream of electrons strong enough to kill harmful organisms in the food. A newer process uses X-rays to kill bacteria.

The amount of radiation used in some of these processes may be surprising. For example, the energy necessary to kill the bacterium salmonella in chicken is seven-million times greater than that used when a person gets a chest X-ray. The World Health Organization says that radiation levels are safe and do not change food in any important way.

However, the Department of Agriculture has done studies on public support for irradiated food in the United States. Recent studies show that public support is decreasing.

The government also found that the high cost of irradiating meat may affect its popularity. Studies estimate that it could cost between five and seventeen-million dollars a year for each factory that uses irradiation. Yet, irradiation does not protect meat from harmful organisms while it is processed in stores or in homes. So irradiated meat would still require careful preparation.

This VOA Special English Agriculture Report was written by Mario Ritter.