U.S. regulators have found a small amount of radioactive iodine in milk from Washington State. But, according to a a joint press release from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the quantity—more than 5,000 times lower than the FDA’s intervention level—is not enough to raise concern for public health.
“Radiation is all around us in our daily lives, and these findings are a miniscule amount compared to what people experience every day. For example, a person would be exposed to low levels of radiation on a round trip cross country flight, watching television and even from construction materials,” said Patricia Hansen, an FDA senior scientist.
Contaminated milk is a concern after the nuclear event in Japan because radioactive iodine can get into rainwater, which eventually ends up in cow feed and then the cow. “The reason it shows up in dairy is that it’s the quick route in a cow’s body,” said Dave Carter, executive director of the National Bison Association. When the cow is harvested at a later date, the beef could be contaminated as well, Carter added.
The EPA plans to increase nationwide monitoring of milk, as well as rainwater, drinking water and other potential exposure routes.
The dairy industry responds
In response to the EPA and FDA announcement about elevated radiation levels in milk, The International Dairy Foods Association issued a statement reassuring consumers of milk safety. “The U.S. milk supply is safe for everyone to drink, including children and infants,” the release read.
So far, this vote of confidence has been shared by several organic milk suppliers. “The EPA’s testing equipment is extremely sophisticated and can pick up miniscule levels of radiation,” said Sara Loveday, spokesperson for Broomfield, Colo.-based Horizon Organic dairy. “FDA and EPA are telling us there is no basis for concern.”
Yet, the company is prepared to respond to any federal marching orders for internal company testing. “If we are contacted by the EPA or other agencies involved, we will cooperate fully with any direction they advise,” Loveday said.
A similar sentiment came from Boulder, Colo-based Aurora Organic Dairy, which has dairy farms in Texas and Colorado. “Should the FDA intervene, we will be prepared have our raw milk tested prior to processing,” said Sonja Tuitele, vice president of communications for Aurora.
Grass-fed milk at risk
Despite its renowned healthfulness, milk from grass-fed cows may be particularly vulnerable to radiation contamination at this point. “Grass-fed milk is a canary in mineshaft for these things,” Carter said. “It’s more of a concern for grass-fed regimens than grain-fed ones simply because the animal has taken grass right out of the soil. If the soil is contaminated, the cow takes it into milk right away and then meat later on.”
Milk from grain-fed cows could be affected in the future. “Grains being fed right now have been stored in concrete or metal silos, so they haven't taken up any contamination yet,” Carter said. “If there's continued [radiation] buildup, next year could be a concern when a farmer plants grains and harvests them. The plants will take up contamination.”
Still, Carter cautions against substituting conventional milk for milk from organic, grass-fed cows. “The benefits of organic milk outweigh the immediate concern with radiation,” he said. “I would take that concern about any radiation in grass-fed milk over any concerns about artificial growth hormones and genetic modification in foods.”
What can retailers do?
Just four hours from where the FDA found contaminated milk in Spokane, Wash., customers at Central Co-op have not yet asked about milk safety, according to Webster Walker, community outreach administrator for the Seattle store. But that’s likely to change. “As this crisis continues, we’ll probably get a lot of questions on food safety,” Walker said. “At this point, we’ve been assured by official authorities that radiation levels are not a risk for public health.”
Employees at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle plan to offer customers a similar response when asked about radiation in the food sold at the store. “We have advised our store employees to acknowledge concerns about radiation contamination of the food supply expressed by customers and staff but also to emphasize that there is no reason to suspect that any products sold by PCC contain unsafe levels of radiation,” said Diana Crane, spokesperson for the retail chain.
To stay informed about the federal radiation testing program, go to the FDA’s Radiation Safety page. Retailers also would be wise to ask their milk suppliers about testing procedures and an appropriate consumer response.