Government regulators, the food industry, and most scientists agree that food irradiation is safe and effective. Michael Colby doesn't care: he wants it stopped. Is he a hero or a menace?
By Dan Kennedy
FEBRUARY 16, 1998: The first thing you should understand about Michael Colby and his crusade against food irradiation is this: almost no one with any scientific credentials thinks he knows what he's talking about.
Irradiating food by zapping it with gamma rays, according to its advocates, eliminates all or most of the bacteria that can make people sick. But Colby, irradiation's most outspoken and arguably most effective opponent, charges that the process introduces cancer-causing toxins and strips food of its nutrients. It's a stance that the overwhelming majority of scientists insist is both unscientific and wrong. And with something like 9000 Americans dying of food-borne illnesses every year, critics believe that Colby and the organization he heads, Food & Water, are dangerously irresponsible.
"They are seeking to deny choice in the marketplace," says Christine Bruhn, director of the Center for Consumer Research, at the University of California's Davis campus. "If any organization wishes to take credit for denying this choice, I think they should also bear the burden for the deaths of people who did not have that choice. I know that's a strong statement, but I believe that very deeply."
The second thing you should understand about Colby is that he does have his supporters in the scientific community -- lonely dissidents who insist that, in the drive to put irradiated food onto American tables, important questions have gone unanswered. Questions about whether irradiation creates substances known as free radicals that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from the free radicals produced by normal cooking, freeze-drying, and other processing methods. About whether those free radicals can cause chromosomal damage that may be a precursor to cancer. About whether irradiation can change unsaturated fat -- so-called good fat -- into saturated fat, which can contribute to high blood pressure, heart attacks, and strokes.
At this point, virtually nothing other than Michael Colby -- and his in-your-face advertisements and letter-writing campaigns and pickets and threats of boycotts -- stands between irradiation and its widespread adoption by the nation's agribusinesses and food processors. He deserves an enormous amount of credit, his supporters say, even if he'd rather exaggerate and propagandize than work within the system. The goal, after all, is to win, not score debating points.
"What you want to know is, Is Michael Colby a responsible guy? Very," says Donald Louria, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at New Jersey Medical School, in Newark, and a member of Food & Water's advisory board. "I think Michael Colby is doing the public a hell of a service, and I don't care if he goes what I think is a bit too far. I think we owe him a big debt."
The third thing you should understand is that Colby's anti-irradiation campaign isn't so much about science as it is about philosophy, even theology. Colby and his staff of seven are based in tiny Walden, Vermont; he lives with his wife and recently adopted baby daughter at an organic farm down the road. The location is apt. Like Henry David Thoreau in Walden, Colby -- a thin, intense 34-year-old in jeans and work boots, with a shock of unruly brown hair and an air of jittery nervous energy -- seeks nothing less than a thoroughgoing transformation of society.
As an activist organization, Food & Water needs clearly defined targets. So it has fought the use of recombinant bovine-growth hormone (rBGH), a genetically engineered substance that increases milk yield but that has been linked to possible health problems in both cows and humans. It has also fought the overuse of pesticides. But Colby has a larger agenda: he believes that urban communities must re-establish ties with rural America, that the geographic and psychological distance that separates people from the food they eat must be shrunk. No more McDonald's, in other words. No more Lean Cuisine.
And like Thoreau, Colby has more than a touch of arrogance and self-righteousness. Not to mention contempt for his critics -- both his avowed enemies in the pro-irradiation majority, and fellow activists who are less willing than he to fight the power. The high-profile Center for Science in the Public Interest, for instance, has announced it may withdraw its opposition to irradiation in exchange for a comprehensive cleanup program in slaughterhouses and processing centers. "When it comes to challenging controversial technologies, they're not going to go head-to-head with corporate America," says Colby. "They feel much more comfortable going after popcorn in movie theaters or Chinese takeout." And consumer advocate Carol Tucker Foreman, despite having reservations about irradiation, isn't even in the fight. In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, she ultimately came out in favor of the procedure: "Irradiation will help, but it's no cure-all."
Colby sneeringly dismisses the agenda of these mainstream activists as an ineffective combination of lobbying, legislating, and lunch. Michael Colby doesn't do lunch. And that, he says, is why the food industry regards him as its most dangerous enemy.
"They hate Food & Water," he says. "They hate us. I'm not going to lunch with them. I'm not having a conference call with them. That's the difference."
Indeed, irradiation advocate Michael Doyle, a microbiologist who heads the department of food science and technology at the University of Georgia, says Colby's grassroots activism has made him the single biggest obstacle to a measure that could result in a safer food supply. Colby likes to posit himself as David doing battle with an uncaring corporate Goliath. But as Doyle points out, Goliath hasn't shown much interest in fighting. After all, if you're the head of a meat-packing plant considering irradiation, and your opponent claims that you want to poison kids, what are you going to do? Try to force irradiated products down your customers' throats? Or sign Food & Water's pledge sheet promising not to use irradiation? It's not a difficult decision.
"There have been major companies that have indicated an interest in using food irradiation, and Food & Water would respond with threats, ads in the newspaper. And companies would typically back down and say, 'Okay, we're not interested,' " says Doyle. "It's been effective. Food & Water has been the principal group that has stopped the use of food irradiation."
In 1986 the FDA approved the use of irradiation for spices, fruits, and vegetables. In 1990, responding to an outbreak of salmonella in chicken, the agency added poultry to the list. To date, though, the poultry industry has treated irradiation like it's -- well, radioactive. Today, some spices are irradiated, as are baby-bottle nipples, those little plastic containers that hold cream, and many medical supplies. Because irradiation is so effective at eliminating all or most bacteria from food, hospitals sometimes serve irradiated food to AIDS patients and to others with compromised immune systems, such as people recovering from bone-marrow transplants. Until last year, though, it seemed unlikely that irradiation would spread beyond these limited uses anytime soon.
Then came the Burger King scare, which forced Hudson Foods to recall 25 million pounds of bacteria-tainted beef. The panic gathered force with horror stories of illness and death caused by the spread of E. coli bacteria -- especially E. coli O157:H7, a new and potentially deadly strain that's popped up in everything from apple juice to organic salad. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between six million and thirty-three million people in the US become sick from the food they eat every year. All of a sudden, food-safety horror stories were popping up everywhere from the TV magazine shows to the front page of the New York Times.
The crucial boost in this latest round of pro-irradiation interest came last year from Bill Clinton's $43 million National Food Safety Initiative. Clinton endorsed irradiation, and the FDA responded in December by approving the process for red meat. Donald Thayer, a US Department of Agriculture scientist who is one of the government's principal experts on the subject, told the Times that the FDA's decision "would save lots of lives." Irradiated beef could appear on store shelves by this summer -- and if it catches on, some observers say, it could provide the impetus to bring irradiated poultry and other foods to market as well. And though proponents push the notion of "choice," Colby believes the appearance of irradiated products on supermarket shelves is simply the first step toward the elimination of non-irradiated products.
To encourage consumer acceptance, the food industry is lobbying for a change in labeling requirements that would emphasize irradiation's safety and play down the nuclear angle. The industry doesn't like the word irradiation and is trying to promote the term cold pasteurization instead. (Taste problems must be solved as well; to date, the verdict on irradiated beef is mixed, with some saying it makes the meat more tender, and some saying it gives it an unappetizing color and texture.)
As irradiated food has moved closer to market, the opposition has focused its efforts. Perhaps the most prominent of irradiation's opponents is Colby's nemesis Michael Jacobson, director of the Center for Science in Public Interest, who rejects Colby's argument that irradiation renders food unsafe. The real problem, as Jacobson sees it, is that irradiation is being viewed by the meat industry as a quick and easy fix for long-term, systemic problems.
"We don't like the idea of having dirty food on which bacteria have been killed," Jacobson says. "We feel that food should be safe and clean. It would be very tempting for the food industry to have very sloppy practices, and then to cover that up with a blast of radiation at the end of the line."
Unlike Colby, Jacobson would consider supporting irradiation "as a last resort" if it could be shown that government-mandated cleanup efforts would not be enough to eliminate bacterial hazards from the food supply. Colby charges that this is exactly the sort of "yellow light" industry has been seeking from the consumer movement. Jacobson, for his part, faults Food & Water for putting out information about irradiation that doesn't square with the scientific facts.
"I've never seen Michael Colby show a risk assessment, that this is really a significant risk," Jacobson says. "Eating contaminated poultry is not a speculative risk. It is a known risk. There is a real problem."
Colby's critics -- Jacobson among them -- charge that his opposition is unscientific, but that's unfair. Though Colby himself has no scientific background, several highly credentialed researchers agree with him.
The scientific argument against irradiation is this: irradiating food destroys bacteria by breaking apart their molecular structure. These molecular bits and pieces, known as "free radicals" (or "radiolytic byproducts"), form new substances, including known carcinogens such as benzene and formaldehyde. Irradiation also drastically reduces the vitamin content of some foods.
Irradiation's proponents actually concede both of these points. Yet they say the free radicals produced by irradiation are identical to the free radicals created by food-processing methods such as cooking or freeze-drying. (Colby responds that since irradiation is not a substitute for these processes, the final result -- food that has been irradiated and cooked -- contains more free radicals than it would have otherwise.) In cases where vitamin depletion is serious enough to pose a problem, proponents add, the food can be supplemented with vitamins after being irradiated -- as is done now when traditional processing methods reduce vitamin levels.
Not all of the arguments against irradiation are based on science, strictly speaking. Some are speculative, such as Colby's worry that irradiation could eventually create radiation-resistant bacteria. Some are common-sensical: a number of critics charge that irradiation facilities pose dangers to workers and to the environment.
A layperson has no hope of sorting out the truth. Proponents say that hundreds of studies show irradiation is safe and effective. Opponents charge that the FDA, for reasons that are unclear, found flaws in studies that revealed problems, and has instead focused on a handful of studies that produced the results it wanted.
New Jersey Medical School's Donald Louria, for instance, says a study conducted in India showed poor children who ate irradiated wheat suffered from chromosome damage, which can lead to cancer. Louria is similarly concerned about irradiation's tendency to strip vitamins from food. "I'm a current opponent until the proponents agree to do the proper tests, and so far they won't do them," says Louria, proposing a simple test on human volunteers that would take a matter of months. "I think the FDA is off-base on this, and they've never gone back to review it," he adds.
George Tritsch, a cancer-research specialist for the New York State Department of Public Health, has testified before a congressional committee that there is "abundant and convincing evidence in the refereed scientific literature" that irradiated food produces cancer- and mutation-causing agents, and can induce dangerously high blood pressure by transforming benign fat into a more dangerous form.
Such arguments elicit exasperated sighs from irradiation's proponents, who say the process has been shown to be safe in study after study, and that the evidence cited by Louria and Tritsch has been refuted by other, more valid studies.
"Free radicals are always present in a food," says the University of California's Christine Bruhn. "The mere presence of a free radical has no significance."
In the end, though, Bruhn concedes the impossibility of converting irradiation's foes. "They are correct in that you cannot prove irradiated foods are safe," she says. "But in reality, you cannot prove anything is safe. You can only prove absence of harm."
Michael Colby wages his war against irradiation from a converted one-room schoolhouse in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, a spectacularly beautiful place where affluence is juxtaposed with rural poverty of the meanest sort. His small staff ranges from an earnest-looking, L.L. Beanish young woman to a man with a flowing beard and formidable facial piercings.
Food & Water does not go in for subtlety. On the walls are examples of some of the ads Food & Water has taken out in trade journals and local newspapers: THERE'S ONLY ONE THING WORSE THAN SPAM . . . IRRADIATED SPAM, part of a successful campaign aimed at Hormel Foods. THE DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY HAS A SOLUTION TO THE PROBLEM OF IRRADIATED WASTE. YOU'RE GOING TO EAT IT. And a mock newspaper headline that reads NUCLEAR ACCIDENT AT MEAT PROCESSING PLANT, below which appears: AND YOU THOUGHT E. COLI WAS BAD.
Colby grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, and spent his summers working on his grandfather's farm. (Ironically, his father is an office manager for Hormel.) He attended the University of Iowa, but moved to New York City before he graduated in order to play drums with his band, Drunken Boat, named after a Rimbaud poem. He worked for Ralph Nader's New York Public Interest Research Group. But his career as an activist really began in the late '80s, when he met Wally Burnstein, an osteopath from New Jersey who founded Food & Water. Colby went to work in Burnstein's basement, and eventually became executive director of the organization, as well as the husband of Burnstein's niece Stacey Burnstein. Colby describes Burnstein as a profound influence; he's written that Burnstein's death, in 1996, was "the darkest day of my life."
Colby moved to Vermont seven years ago, in part because his wife wanted to attend graduate school at the University of Vermont, and in part because he wanted to return to the country. Not that he's been a particularly easy neighbor to get along with. He's battled with the iconic Ben & Jerry's over its use of milk from dairies that use pesticides. He's fought with the giant Cabot dairy, one of the state's major employers, as part of Food & Water's ongoing campaign against the use of rBGH. That latter effort earned him the enmity of Bernie Sanders, the state's popular socialist congressman. (A member of Sanders's staff said he would not comment on his relationship with Colby.)
Food & Water, Colby claims, has grown into an organization of some 3500 dues-paying members, with a database of more than 100,000 supporters and potential supporters and a budget in excess of $600,000.
All that is prologue to the current battle over irradiation, which looms as the biggest test Colby has yet faced. In 1991, he got an early taste of what's to come when ABC's John Stossel, corporate America's favorite TV journalist, attacked Food & Water's scientific arguments as "outdated" and "discredited." Stossel also hammered Burnstein's credentials ("He's not a research doctor but an osteopath!"), yet failed to put on camera allies such as Donald Louria and George Tritsch.
After the FDA approved irradiation for red meat last December, major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Boston Globe (beneath the headline GOODNESS FROM GAMMA RAYS) weighed in with ringing endorsements. The media in general, taking their cue from lengthy stories in the Times and the Washington Post, have depicted Colby's objections to irradiation as unscientific. Amy Poe, who's studying coverage of food irradiation for the left-leaning media watchdog Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, says virtually all of the press has followed the Times' lead. "There's this mentality that believes the truth has to be in the middle, and if you're taking some extreme position, then you have to be wrong somehow," Poe says.
Be assured that Michael Colby takes an extreme position. And it can sometimes get a little exasperating. Ask him about his own diet, and he talks about the vegetables and turkeys and chickens his wife raises, and about bartering with neighbors for pigs. "We consume primarily what we grow and raise," he says. Ask him how his vague but rather expensive-sounding vision of a culture reconnected with the land would appeal to, say, an urban working-class family trying to stretch its food budget, and he replies that he's sure it wouldn't hurt people economically, that what they're eating now is making them sick, and that in any case there are other activists working on urban issues. But the inescapable conclusion is that he believes, as the chronicler of the earlier Walden did: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts, of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." Appealing as that philosophy may be, it is shared by few of Colby's fellow human beings.
"Somehow we've got to block the lurch toward globalization. It does not work for the food supply," Colby says. "Urban centers like Boston are going to have to figure out ways to support rural areas around them and develop a symbiotic relationship. There are ways to do that. Cities used to consist of tight-knit communities, with small stores and small businesspeople. There was a real sense of community and cohesion, and a respect for things local. That's been totally obliterated by Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and the rise of industrialized food. These are the things we have to challenge if we're going to save ourselves."
You don't have to adopt Colby's philosophy to see its value. In a very real sense, for instance, irradiated meat is the apotheosis of the "industrialized food" addiction he rails against. A CBS News poll taken last year showed that 77 percent of Americans don't want to eat irradiated food. Their objections may be rooted in ignorance, but Colby's aren't. There are unanswered questions about the safety of irradiated food. And even if Colby's theoretical objections seem like an environmentalist's self-indulgence when compared to the horror of a child's dying from an E. coli infection, it's surely wrong for the regulatory-industrial complex to foist this new technology upon us when the full consequences of that decision are still unknown.
The food industry's plan is to progress incrementally, by persuading the government to ease off on labeling requirements, by insisting to a skeptical public that irradia -- er, cold pasteurization is a boon. Colby's critics charge he wants to eliminate choice, but in fact he's just trying to prevent one kind of choicelessness from being replaced by another, possibly scarier, one. Perhaps irradiated and non-irradiated products will coexist at the supermarket -- at least for a while. But what happens if McDonald's switches to irradiated meat? That's a likely scenario, since the fast-food industry, worried about image and liability, has been especially eager to guarantee its products' safety. Remove Colby from the equation, and pretty soon you wouldn't be able to eat a Big Mac that hadn't been doused in gamma rays.
True, Colby doesn't want you to eat that Big Mac in the first place. But that's an argument for another time.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.
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