USDA Approves Red
Meat Irradiation
By Bob Burgdorfer
CHARLOTTE, NC, (Reuters) - The Clinton Administration unveiled rules on Friday for treating meat with irradiation to kill dangerous foodborne diseases, calling it an important new tool to protect consumers.
The announcement came amid a string of recent recalls by companies for hot dogs, lunchmeat, milk and other foods tainted with a deadly strain of listeria. The eruption of recalls in the past few weeks has forced the Agriculture Department and the < Food and Drug Administration to intensify food safety efforts.
''When it comes to food safety, there is no silver bullet,'' Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said. ''But used in conjunction with other science- based prevention efforts, irradiation can provide consumers an added measure of protection.''
Glickman unveiled the proposed irradiation rules during a speech to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. The rules will not be finalized until later this year, and would not require any U.S. company to adopt the technology.
Irradiation treats food with brief doses of gamma rays or electron beams. The procedure would add up to five cents per pound to the cost of ground beef, according to USDA estimates.
The technology could have destroyed a dangerous strain of listeria that recently contaminated hot dogs and lunch meat made by a Sara Lee Corp plant in Michigan, according to experts. The outbreak was blamed for 16 deaths.
Consumer groups, which have clamored for better food safety technology, have been lukewarm about irradiation.
While irradiation effectively kills sickness-causing bacteria such as E. coli 0157:H7, listeria, campylobacter and salmonella, it can also leave products with a slightly ''off taste,'' according to some groups. Another issue is ensuring worker safety around radiation equipment.
The labelling of irradiated meats is also likely to trigger wrangling between industry and consumer groups.
''If in fact the technology is safe and doesn't change the product, we as a scientific organization don't see the rationale for it to be on the label,'' said Dane Bernard, a vice president of the National Food Processors Association.
The USDA's proposed rules would require the international radiation symbol on labels plus a statement indicating the product was treated with irradiation.
Consumer groups have pressed for irradiation to be prominently displayed in large typeface on labels so shoppers know what they are buying.
''There are a group of consumers who will never buy irradiated foods because they want fresh, natural and minimally-processed foods. There is another group of consumers like nursing homes and day-care centers who would seek out irradiated foods,'' said Caroline Smith de Waal, food safety expert with the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
''Then there is the vast body of consumers who don't fit into either category and we don't know how they will react,'' she added.
The Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over all foods except meat and poultry, is expected to launch its own review next week of how to label irradiated products, industry sources said. The FDA has also promised to speed up its review of new food additives to destroy food bacteria.
Labelling is a key issue because of the meat industry's hesitation to invest in irradiation equipment unless it believes consumers will be eager to buy the product. Test marketing of irradiated products will be launched soon after USDA finalizes its new rules.
The USDA rules were a long time coming.
After seven years of study, the FDA declared irradiation to be safe in December 1997. The USDA was then given the green light to develop specific rules for how meat companies could use the technology but frustrated the industry by its 14-month-long review.
Irradiation was developed a generation ago by Pillsbury Foods when it was asked to prepare safe food for U.S. astronauts. The technology has been used on spices, cereals and other foods for several years.