Politics of the Plate:
Irradiated Produce, and Safe Milk from Wal-Mart

irradiated tomato

Blasted Vegetables

That old bugbear food irradiation put in an appearance on Capitol Hill last week, when Prof. Denis Olson of Iowa State University came before a House hearing on food safety with a cooler full of lettuce, tomatoes, asparagus, and spinach—all of which had been irradiated at a plant in Sioux City—to make the case that irradiation would make our food system safer.

His presentation comes at a time when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which has not approved the irradiation of produce, is saying that the issue is a high priority, because the treatment kills E. coli, salmonella, and other harmful bacteria.

After tasting Olson’s irradiated spinach and comparing it to the conventional variety, Representatives Bart Stupak (D-Mich) and John Shimkus (R-Ill) both proclaimed that there was “no difference” between the treated greens and the untreated ones. “Popeye would approve,” said Shimkus.

If so, he would be in the minority. The FDA approved the irradiation of ground beef seven years ago. The reason you don’t see it at your supermarket meat counter is simple: Shoppers won’t touch the stuff.

R.I.P., rBST

Monsanto take note: For better or worse, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., knows what the public wants.

Last week, the nation’s biggest food retailer announced that its Great Value store-brand milk will be sourced exclusively from cows that have not received the artificial growth hormone rBST, which is sold by Monsanto Co. as Posilac. Sam’s Club is following suit. Kroger Co. is pushing to have no-rBST labeling on milk cartons in all of its 3,200 stores. Safeway, Inc., with 1,700 stores, is also using only rBST-free milk for its store brand.

This surge of retail resistance is a rare setback for Monsanto, which has seen its profit and share value soar over the past several years. But after the Federal Trade Commission flatly turned down the company’s request to institute a nationwide ban on labels informing customers when milk products contain no rBST, Monsanto backed an end-run campaign to get the ban introduced state-by-state. The company claims that the “no-rBST” labeling is unfair because milk from cows treated with the synthetic hormone is identical to milk from those that are not.

Consumers aren’t buying that argument. “We’ve listened to our customers and are pleased that our suppliers are helping us offer Great Value milk from cows that are not treated with rBST,” said Wal-Mart’s Pam Kohn in a press release. “Wal-Mart customers have expressed a desire for milk choices.”

So far Monsanto’s efforts to have states ban “no-rBST” labels have come to naught. Before bowing to lobbying pressure from the chemical giant, lawmakers would do well to count the number of cars in the parking lot the next time they drive past their local Wal-Mart. Today, those shoppers are voting with their pocketbooks. Come November, they will be voting in another way.

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