As obesity statistics continue to soar for U.S. children, schools across the country are examining their lunch menus with a critical eye. Large school districts like New York City and Los Angeles have banned soda in an effort to curb calories, and the state of Texas has banned junk food. But reducing calories and sugar shouldn’t be parents’ only concern.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school cafeterias could have a new item on the menu soon – and it’s not a healthy choice. Beginning in January 2004, the National School Lunch Program may be serving your child irradiated beef in hamburgers, sloppy joes, tacos and lasagna. Due to a last-minute clause slipped into legislation by Congress, schools will decide this fall whether to buy irradiated beef.

Irradiation kills bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella by exposing food to ionizing radiation. After several large meat recalls last year, proponents insist that irradiation provides an extra layer of safety. But recent studies raise questions as to whether harmful health effects could result from eating the chemical byproducts that irradiation leaves behind in food.

Despite the controversy over the decision to include irradiated meat in school lunches, there is one fact that cannot be disputed – by approving it for our nation’s schoolchildren, the USDA’s lunch program is poised to become the largest distributor of nuked food in the world. The program feeds 27 million children annually, which means millions of young Americans could become unwitting subjects in an experiment to determine whether this technology is really safe.

Polls of consumer attitudes toward irradiated food show significant opposition. But with the food heading toward schools, the most vulnerable in our society are left without a choice. When irradiated meat shows up on cafeteria trays, more affluent students can avoid it by bringing their own food from home. But students who depend on the free or reduced-price lunch program will not have that choice. Indeed, in an effort to protect their students, several school districts in California, including Los Angeles, have already banned such food from their cafeterias.

The health impact and fairness controversies surrounding this decision may undercut the faith parents have in long-trusted USDA nutrition programs. Not only will children find that their only lunch option contains irradiated meat, but they may not know it is on their plate. Current regulations do not require identifying labels when it is served in schools, restaurants or hospitals.

Fortunately, at least some members of Congress are paying attention to parental concerns. Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, has introduced a right-to-know bill that would require all irradiated meat to be labeled when served in school cafeterias. It would also mandate the distribution of fair and balanced information about irradiation to parents and students. And, it would ensure that children could be given an alternative choice with every meal.

Parents are instinctually wary of any technology or substance that may harm their children, understanding that kids are more vulnerable to chemical impacts because their bodies are still developing. Consideration must be given to chemical exposures during childhood that could increase health problems such as cancer later in life, especially when those exposures are avoidable.

Recent research in Europe has shown that chemicals found in irradiated food may promote cancer development and cause cellular damage in rats, and may cause genetic and cellular damage to human cells. It is not yet understood how the body metabolizes these chemicals, and long-term health effects are unknown. Scientists have warned that further research is necessary. But this research shouldn’t be done on our nation’s schoolchildren.

Irradiation is not a cure-all for food safety problems in schools. In the past year, several prominent media and government investigations have exposed a range of problems that can make school food unsafe, ranging from budget cuts to appalling conditions in crumbling school cafeterias. Much should be done to improve food safety in schools, but irradiation is not the solution.

Instead of a questionable – and potentially hazardous – quick fix, our government ought to be promoting comprehensive solutions to food safety problems. Our children deserve no less.

Wenonah Hauter is director of Public Citizen’s energy and environment program. She can be reached at For more about irradiated meat in school lunches, visit