Irradiated Meat Must Be
Prominently Labelled
WASHINGTON - U.S. meat companies can use irradiation to kill deadly
bacteria but only if they prominently label packages to inform consumers,
the U.S. Agriculture Department said Wednesday.
USDA issued the proposed rules at a time when an outbreak of
listeria in hot dogs and lunch meat produced by a Michigan plant has
killed 16 and sickened many others.
Irradiation has been embraced by some experts as an efficient
way to kill potentially dangerous bacteria in ground beef and other cuts
of meat. Consumer groups are less certain benefits outweigh the risk to
worker safety, and meat companies are concerned about the cost of
installing the equipment.
Irradiation exposes food to small amounts of radiation from
X-ray machines or electron accelerators that penetrate and kill bacteria
without raising the temperature.
Companies would not be required to use irradiation.
The most controversy over the USDA regulations is likely to
center on the department's proposed labeling rules.
The USDA wants to require that package labels contain the
international symbol for radiation and a statement telling consumers the
product was treated with irradiation. The symbol must be "prominently"
placed on the package and the statement printed on the front of the label,
the USDA said.
But regulators said they might also allow companies to adopt a
more consumer-friendly label that states a product is free of E. coli or
other pathogens because of irradiation.
More than 25 percent of Americans are expected to purchase
irradiated ground beef products, the USDA said.
The cost of treating beef would include between two and six
cents a pound for the equipment and labeling, amounting to between $35 and
$105 million for irradiating 1.7 billion pounds of ground beef, the USDA
Those expenses would be more than offset by fewer food
poisoning cases, which mean reduced costs for doctor bills and lost work.
Tom Billy, administrator of the USDA's Food Safety and
Inspection Service, said the rules must give companies "significant
flexibility" in using irradiation.
"The Food Safety and Inspection Service has endeavored to
propose regulations for the irradiation of meat food products that set
forth performance objectives, rather than prescribe specific processing
methods," the USDA said.
That means setting a cap on the maximum dose of irradiation for
beef, and allowing plants to develop their own procedures for use.
The new rules will also cover poultry. The USDA approved
irradiation for poultry several years ago, but few companies have used it
because of the expense. Consumer and industry groups have until April 26
to offer their views on the proposed regulations. The USDA will then spend
several more weeks developing a final set of rules.
An estimated 9,000 Americans die from food poisoning annually, according to
government figures. The exact number of illnesses is difficult to track
because many consumers mistake food poisoning for other ailments.