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
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
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
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
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."
An MIT professor named Samuel Prescott discovered at the turn of the century
that exposing food to gamma rays destroyed dangerous bacteria. But not until
the 1960s, when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved its use for
wheat and wheat flour, did the notion of widespread food irradiation get
serious consideration. Since then, there have been several wavelets of interest
and hundreds of studies, most of which indicate that it's safe and effective.
Irradiation has also been endorsed by groups ranging from the World Health
Organization to the American Medical Association, and has been approved in 40
countries. But the practice has never really caught on, mainly because of
industry fears that the public won't buy food that it associates with nuclear
radiation -- even though, as Colby himself concedes, irradiation does not leave
food radioactive in any way.
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
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.
Irradiation: a chronology
1896: Antoine Henri Becquerel, a French physicist and professor at the
École Polytechnique, in Paris, discovers radioactivity in uranium.
1900: Samuel Prescott, a professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, shows that gamma rays from radium destroy bacteria in food.
1920s-'30s: The United States and France award patents for radiation-based
methods of killing parasites in pork and bacteria in canned food.
1943-'68: MIT scientists, working at US Army research facilities, develop
methods for using irradiation to treat and preserve food.
1963: Federal regulators approve the use of irradiation for wheat and wheat
1972: Astronauts aboard Apollo 17 carry sandwiches made from
irradiated ham, cheese, and bread.
1984: Food & Water, an environmental and health organization, is founded
by New Jersey-based osteopath Wally Burnstein. Among Food & Water's goals:
stopping the use of irradiation, which, it charges, creates cancer-causing
substances and reduces food's nutritional value.
1986: The FDA approves the use of irradiation to destroy insects and mold in
spices, fruits, and vegetables.
1990: In response to concerns about salmonella and other bacterial
contamination in chicken, the FDA extends its approval for irradiation to
1991: In a piece for ABC's 20/20, conservative journalist John Stossel
excoriates Food & Water's anti-irradiation information as "outdated" and
"discredited." Not one scientist who agrees with Food & Water's views
appears on camera.
1992: Carrot Top, a grocery store in Chicago, begins selling irradiated
1993: Four children die and hundreds of people become sick from eating
undercooked, contaminated hamburgers at Jack in the Box.
1994: Isomedix, an irradiation company in Chester, New York, petitions the US
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to approve the irradiation of red meat.
1996: Wally Burnstein, the founder of Food & Water, dies. His
second-in-command and protégé, Michael Colby, who had earlier
moved the organization to Walden, Vermont, assumes leadership.
1997: Hudson Foods recalls 25 million pounds of ground beef contaminated with
E. coli. Burger King, Hudson's largest customer, severs ties with the
1997: President Clinton unveils his $43 million National Food Safety
Initiative. Clinton calls for "new steps using cutting-edge technology to keep
our food safe," including irradiation.
1997: The FDA approves Isomedix's petition and approves the use of
irradiation for red meat.
1998: Proponents of irradiation predict that food companies will finally
begin to move toward widespread adoption of the technology. Food & Water
vows to campaign against any company that seeks to use it.
Sources: Technology Review (published by MIT); the Washington
Post; the New York Times; The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia
(Avon, 1983); ABC News.
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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.