A consumer group is planning a media blitz to prevent the opening of the nation's first commercial food irradiation plant, but a company official says "scare tactics" will backfire.
Radio spots begin airing Monday on 57 radio stations throughout Florida with an alarming message:"What if you found out that those fresh fruits and vegetables everyone keeps telling you to eat more of, might . . . kill you?"
The 60-second spot, sponsored by the New York-based Food & Water Inc., goes on to say "ingesting radiation-exposed foods causes genetic damage, which can lead to cancer and birth defects."
But Sam Whitney, president of Vindicator of Florida Inc. in Plant City, calls the whole campaign an "act of desperation" and said it will not stand in the way of his $6.8 million plant scheduled to open in mid-August in rural Mulberry.
"When people realize it's nothing more than scare tactics, I think it will backfire," he said. "I'm not a doctor, I'm not a scientist. All I know is if it could kill you, why would the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approve it?"
The FDA, Agriculture Department, World Health Organization and the governments of more than 30 nations have approved irradiation for use on such foods as poultry, pork, fruit and vegetables.
In plants with 6-foot-thick, lead-lined walls, the foods travel down a conveyor belt and are zapped by ionizing radiation from cobalt 60 and other radioisotopes.
Federal agriculture officials see irradiation as an encouraging new weapon in the fight against salmonella, vibrio and other bacteria responsible for a surge in food-borne illnesses. Research also indicates the shelf life of highly perishable strawberries could be extended seven to 10 days, and the military shipment of berries to overseas troops has been suggested, said Dr. Martha Rhodes, a state microbiologist.
Whitney has said he has plenty of food company customers waiting for his plant to open, but he has declined to name them. Whitney said earlier this month that he did not have any signed contracts.
Food & Water, which receives funds from the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation and other major foundations, says more research is needed about the effect of irradiated food on humans.
Walter Burnstein, head of Food & Water, argues food irradiation can cause cancer, kidney damage and chromosomal abnormalities and deplete the nutritional value of food by changing its molecular structure.
The consumer group has been successful in persuading such major food companies as McDonald's, General Foods and H.J. Heinz to avoid food irradiation. New York, New Jersey and Maine have banned the sale of radiation-exposed foods.