Irradiated Meat Flunks in L.A. Schools

Public Citizen
October/November 2003
Vol. 4, No. 5

1) Irradiated Meat Flunks in L.A. Schools
2) Preserve Parents' Right-to-Know

The Los Angeles Unified School District has banned irradiated foods from its cafeterias, a move that could set a trend for school districts across the country.

Calling it "ludicrous" for children to be used as a test group for eating irradiated foods when the long-term health effects are unknown, the seven-member board voted Sept. 9 to forbid the 677-school system from buying irradiated ground beef from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National School Lunch Program.

There are 731,000 students in the L.A. school district, nearly three-fourths of whom qualify for federally subsidized meals.

Parents, teachers and public-interest groups were very active in urging the L.A. board to pass the resolution, noting that California is often considered a pioneer in healthy trends. Last year the board banned sodas, a move that will end the sale of sodas on school property this coming January.

Public Citizen worked closely with the L.A.-based Healthy School Food Coalition and the Center for Food and Justice to inform board members about the pitfalls of irradiated foods. School Board Member Julie Korenstein, who introduced the ban, said she was pleased with the board's decision to not expose children to potential risk.

"This vote sends an important message: the health of our children comes first," Korenstein said. "It has clearly been demonstrated that a child's health directly affects their ability to learn. Because there are real questions about the health impacts of irradiated foods, we will not compromise the mission of protecting and educating children by allowing them to eat irradiated meat."

As a way to demonstrate the depletion of nutrients caused by irradiation, representatives of Healthy School Food Coalition and Public Citizen delivered children's vitamin bottles to each of the seven school board members before the vote.

As the National School Lunch Program serves meals to the most vulnerable children, largely those from low-income families, the groups criticized the USDA for allowing the irradiation industry to profit on a new technology at the expense of a healthy diet for L.A.'s schoolchildren.

"The USDA ignored us then, but they can't ignore us now," said Tracy Lerman, a California organizer for Public Citizen's safe lunch campaign. "Parents don't want to expose their children to a questionable technology that is unnecessary and only perpetuates the filthy conditions in meat plants that cause food poisoning in the first place."

Los Angeles becomes the fourth school district in the country to ban irradiated ground beef. The others are also in California: Ukiah, Berkeley and Point Arena.

Districts that have said they will not serve irradiated meat, but which have not passed formal bans, include Boston; New York City; San Diego and Sonora, CA; Cleveland, North Olmsted and Orange, OH; and Sauk Rapids, Willmar and Spring Lake Park, MN. Only two districts have said they will serve irradiated meat: Monroe, IN and Agra, OK.


Preserve Parents' Right-to-Know

In response to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture policy to allow schools to serve irradiated meat to children, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has introduced the "Right to Know School Nutrition Act." The bill would:

1) Require balanced information on irradiation to be provided to parents, guardians and students. The information should include the effects of irradiation on nutrition and any adverse health effects from consuming irradiated foods;

2) Require clear labeling for menu items that have been irradiated. Labeling must say either "treated with irradiation" or "treated by radiation" (euphemisms, such as "cold pasteurization" or "electronic pasteurization" could not be used);

3) Require the display of prominent signs in cafeterias when irradiated food is being served;

4) Prohibit the co-mingling of irradiated with non-irrdiated foods; and

5) Require that additional, non-irradiated meals always be served.

The bill addresses USDA arguments that it does not have the authority to require school districts to provide balanced information and adequate labeling.

We urge you to contact your members of Congress and ask them to co-sponsor this important piece of legislation.

Sample Letter:

Dear Senator/Representative:

I am writing to ask you to co-sponsor H.R. 3120, the Right-to-Know School Nutrition Act.

As you know, the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently lifted the prohibition on irradiated meat for the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast programs.

Irradiation is a very controversial technology. I do not believe that enough research has been conducted to evaluate the health effects of consuming large {or any} quantities of irradiated food.

I also do not believe that our children should serve as laboratory experiments for an industry that has not been successful in the marketplace.

While USDA has encouraged school districts to provide information to parents and students on irradiation, there is no requirement for them to do so. In addition, there are no labeling requirements currently in effect that would distinguish irradiated from non-irradiated meals in schools. H.R. 3120 would correct these problems. It would give parents the opportunity to make an informed choice about what their children eat in school.

I urge you to co-sponsor this important piece of legislation and work for its enactment.