WITHIN weeks, some supermarket shelves will carry chicken that has been put through the controversial process of irradiation. This process - which treats foods with gamma radiation - was approved by the United States Department of Agriculture to help control bacteria like salmonella.
The decision came after the agency determined that potentially 35 to 60 percent of all chicken sold could be affected by such microbes.
Originally the treated poultry was to be released by the end of October. But the owner of Florida's Vindicator radiation plant - where the processing will be carried out - said it would be briefly delayed.
The debate over irradiated meat has gone on for some time. Consumer group spokesmen and some public health experts are concerned about the possible dangers. But some laud its protective aspect.
A key industry group, the National Broiler Council, is perched right on the fence. Its statement on the radiation rule says "the National Broiler Council has maintained a position of neutrality...."
Michael Jacobson, executive director for Science and the Public Interest in Washington, says: "Irradiation has been inadequately tested. There may be some risk to consumers and to workers."
Edward Josephson, known as "the father of food irradiation," counters: "Radiation doesn't add any new dangers. The dose used is not a sterilizing dose, so [the chicken] does have to be kept refrigerated." Dr. Josephson, adjunct professor of the department of food science and nutrition at the University of Rhode Island, was involved in starting the research on this process in 1964.
He says it removes the hazards of certain materials thought to cause disease. And he claims it adds no new hazards. "We kept data as head of the food- radiation program of US Army," he says, adding that there was "no data of any illness from eating irradiated foods."
David Dodson, an assistant professor of medicine at Boston University, says: "I don't feel irradiation has any proven benefits, and there are reasons to feel that it could be very harmful."
Dr. Dodson points to ongoing scientific research dealing with radiomimetic (or radiation-mimicking) properties of irradiated foods and says that if irradiated foods have radiomimetic effects in humans, "they ought not to be given to human beings."
"We all know radiation is dangerous," Dodson says. "The difference is one of dose.... A chest X-ray uses 1/50th of a rad; a lethal dose of radiation is about 500 rads.... They [USDA] are [using] about 300,000 rads for the chicken.... That would be about l5 million chest x-rays."
Dodson says the only irradiated-food study on human genetics was performed in India on malnourished children and published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1975. The children were given freshly irradiated wheat. The study, he says, found evidence of genetic damage in blood cells, and "concern of damage often seen in cancerous cells."
The USDA press release on irradiated chicken says all treated meat will be labeled with a green international symbol and the words "Treated with Radiation" or "Treated by Irradiation." This, however, applies only to whole birds sold in retail markets.
"Unfortunately, consumers will not have a choice, because all processed, restaurant, and cafeteria foods that contain irradiated chicken will not be labeled as such," says Michael Colby of the public interest group, Food and Water Inc.
USDA spokesman Jim Greene agrees that no chicken served in a restaurant or a cafeteria or in processed food requires an irradiated label because, as a federal agency, the USDA has no jurisdiction over local food establishments.
Mr. Greene, who formerly served as the US Food and Drug Agency spokesman on irradiation, says, however, he does not know of "one credible scientific organization that doubts the safety of the radiation at the levels we've outlined." Twelve nations are using it on chicken, he says.
Three states - Maine, New York, and New Jersey - have already banned or imposed a moratorium on irradiated foods.
The USDA, also in late October, approved the use of trisodium phosphate (TSP) as an alternate way to kill salmonella microbes.
Mr. Jacobson says that is a cheap and safe chemical for poultry processors to use.
Mr. Colby says the salmonella problem is increasing because the poultry industry "is filthy."
"The best thing to do," Jacobson says, "is change the way chicken are produced." He urges a process cleanup - from the feed chickens are given to the trucks carrying the meat.