In the end, neither side won. The first National Debate on Food Irradiation held last week was more like a reunion, where proponents and opponents -- all too familiar with one another's positions -- hashed over the same arguments and reached the same gridlock. But the forum did provide an opportunity to review the state of the technology, the strength of its opposition and the uncertainty of its future.

Food irradiation, a process that has been feasible for more than 40 years, uses gamma, beta or x-rays to disinfect, kill disease-causing microorganisms or delay spoilage of foods. It does not make food radioactive. In the United States, the process has been approved to decontaminate spices, disinfect wheat and inhibit sprouting of white potatoes. The Food and Drug Administration approved the uses of low-dose irradiation to control trichinosis in pork in 1985, and to slow ripening and kill insects in fresh fruits and vegetables in 1986.

Irradiation is being used to decontaminate a small percentage of spices in this country, but there are currently no irradiated pork products or fresh fruits and vegetables being sold. Last year, however, irradiated mangoes were test-marketed for a week in North Miami Beach, and irradiated papayas were sold on a test basis in Los Angeles supermarkets. More than 30 countries have approved the use of irradiation for various products, but the only foods being irradiated on a large scale are grain in the Soviet Union and potatoes in Japan, according to speaker Donna Porter, a policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service.

The debate, sponsored by the consumer advocate group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, and organized by a committee representing the various viewpoints of the issue, drew about 100 participants from government, industry and consumer organizations. It was a spirited day at the Washington Plaza Hotel, as audience members tossed barbs at the speakers -- and each other -- during the question-and-answer periods. At least one mini-feud erupted at a table during the banquet lunch as participants shared hostility and whole-grain rolls.

Essentially, opponents -- largely from environmental and health advocacy groups -- believe the process is unsafe and unnecessary, and that it can deplete food of nutrients. They also contend that it would create potentially dangerous environments for food irradiation workers and communities that house irradiation facilities and trucks for transporting radioactive material. Such opponents believe that all irradiated whole foods and irradiated ingredients in foods should be clearly labeled to alert consumers that the product has undergone the process.

Proponents -- largely from the irradiation industry, government and some food companies -- believe that the process is safe, and that nutrient losses are no different than from other processing techniques, such as canning. Food regulations concerning irradiation facilities and transport of radioactive material adequately protect irradiation workers and the public, proponents contend. The Food and Drug Administration has required labeling of all irradiated whole foods -- but not of food ingredients -- until 1988, when a symbol similiar to the Environmental Protection Agency's logo will replace the written disclosure, unless the agency issues a new proposal to extend the present language requirement.

One of the biggest sources of contention over the safety of food irradiation revolves around the safety of the radiolytic products (RPs) formed after foods have been irradiated. Analogous products are formed from other cooking and preserving methods, but researchers do not know the character of every RP formed as a result of the irradiation process. Consumer groups contend that some of these RPs are carcinogens.

Richard Piccioni, a senior staff scientist with Accord Research and Education Associates, a nonprofit public health firm, painted a picture of foods as complicated substances whose chemical and molecular structures are made even more complex after they are irradiated. Piccioni said that the nature of traditional toxicity testing makes it impossible to evaluate the safety of radiolytic substances in a single irradiated food, let alone the entire food supply. "We are incapable of giving an answer that is complete enough," Piccioni said.

George Pauli, a supervisory consumer safety officer for the FDA, said that it's "false" that scientists have "no idea" about the chemical nature of foods. "We're not saying we know everything, but we're saying that we knew enough about it {the safety of irradiation} to approve it." The FDA has long contended that toxic substances could not be produced in irradiated food in unsafe amounts under the radiation levels approved.

Another session, dealing with worker and environmental safety, focused on the charge that the technology has not been the food industry's idea, but has been pushed by the government as a way to dispose of nuclear waste. Cesium 137, one source material for food irradiation, is a radioactive isotope of the metallic element cesium and a by-product of nuclear weapons production. In 1986 and 1987, Congress appropriated a total of $10 million to the Department of Energy to develop beneficial uses of nuclear by-products, a DOE spokesman said in a phone interview after the debate. The agency has signed agreements with project sponsors in six states to build demonstration food irradiators.

"Food irradiation is a disposal plan, disguised as a food treatment plan," said Denis Mosgofian, director of the National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation and a speaker at the debate. Mosgofian's anti-irradiation network, whose current mission is to block the development of the six irradiators, consists of close to two dozen chapters nationwide, as well as about 50 affiliates and supporting organizations. Grassroots groups such as Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) and Floridians for Nuclear Free Food are cropping up all over the country.

And there is a movement within Congress to block the development of irradiation. "We can afford to let the jury stay out longer," said Rep. Douglas Bosco (D-Calif.) in his luncheon address. "The nation does not lack fresh meat and produce." Bosco introduced a bill this year that would repeal FDA's recent approvals of irradiation of pork and fruit and vegetables, require labeling of all irradiated food ingredients in both restaurants and supermarkets and require a comprehensive study of the technology by the National Academy of Sciences. On the state level, Maine has passed a bill that bans the sale of irradiated food there, and a similar bill has passed the Senate in New Jersey.

Rep. Sid Morrison (R-Wash.), a long-time proponent of food irradiation and an opponent of Bosco's bill, countered that there has been a "dramatic debate on the emotional side of the issue" and that the science of irradiation is sound. Morrison said the technology could help feed Third World countries and be a substitute for some problematic post-harvest pesticides.

Whatever the reasons, commercialization of irradiated foods has not gone very far. Roseanna Morrison, an agricultural economist from the USDA, predicted that development of the technology will be "very slow growing."

Meanwhile, about a dozen major food companies, such as Gerber, Kraft and Campbell, have opted out of the Coalition for Food Irradiation. According to Mosgofian, whose anti-irradiation groups have been active in letter-writing campaigns to companies, several of the firms are concerned about consumers associating them with an unsafe technology. So far, no company has wanted to be the first to introduce an irradiated product.

Sharon Bomer, the former executive director of the Coalition for Food Irradiation, said that consumer perception "was a concern that the executive committee felt was apparent." However, Bomer said, the primary reasons for firms opting out were because they believed the job of the coalition had been accomplished after FDA's approvals, and that they did not plan to use the technology in the immediate future.

Nancy Blair, the current executive director of the Coalition for Food Irradiation, said that anti-irradiation groups are a "small, vocal minority" and that if food companies decide to use irradiation, "the Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation won't stop us." Ultimately, Blair said, the future of the technology "will be the consumers' choice."