School questions safety of zapped meat

August 19, 2003 12:00 am

By CLAIRE ST. JOHN

Irradiated beef and poultry could be dished up in school cafeterias as early as January if school boards decide to buy it from the National School Lunch Program.

Advocates of irradiated meat say the process — which involves exposing meat to gamma rays, electron beams and X-rays to kill bacteria and parasites — decreases the risk of food-borne illness.

Others say the long-term effects of eating zapped meat is untested, and it should not be fed to children.

Sonora Elementary School District Board of Trustees will discuss whether to buy the meat tomorrow night.

Irradiation extends the shelf life of foods, making refrigerated strawberries stay edible for up to three weeks.

Although longer shelf life would save the district money, Superintendent Ken Harbord's recommendation to the board is to avoid irradiated foods.

"The downside is, what does it do? It's like power lines — there's no proof that they're harmful, but I'm not going to buy a house under them," Harbord said.

Two California school districts — Berkeley Unified and Point Arena in Mendocino County — have already banned irradiated meat. Sonora Elementary District is the first district in Tuolumne County to discuss the issue.