- WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Hundreds of consumers have deluged regulators with
letters, e-mails and faxes demanding that ground beef irradiated to kill
illness-causing bacteria be clearly labeled so shoppers know what they
- The Agriculture Department is trying
to finalize a set of rules allowing American companies to begin irradiating
raw ground beef.
- The process, developed to safeguard food
carried into space by U.S. astronauts, would expose uncooked meat to tiny
amounts of electron beams that penetrate and kill deadly bugs such as E.
coli 0157:H7. That virulent bacteria sickens an estimated 20,000 Americans
annually and kills 250.
- Meat companies, public health officials
and many consumer groups agree irradiation rules should be adopted as quickly
as possible to protect the public.
- Helpful symbol or warning symbol?
- But they are at sharp odds over how --
or even whether -- to inform grocery shoppers about irradiated packages
- If packages of ground beef are required
to carry a label with the universal radura symbol for irradiation, some
shoppers may interpret it as a warning label, the companies contend.
- "Many consumers do not understand
the concept or process of irradiation," said Stein Hordvik, a vice
president of ConAgra Inc., the maker of Eckrich hot dogs, Healthy Choice
frozen dinners and other foods.
- "A labeling requirement will only
add to this confusion and may cause consumer concern and prompt them to
avoid irradiated meat products," Hordvik added in a letter to USDA.
- Right to know
- The meat industry is so worried about
the word "irradiation," it has lobbied the USDA for permission
to use the phrase "cold pasteurized" instead because shoppers
are used to seeing that on milk cartons.
- More than 700 consumers -- including
retired schoolteachers, parents, and a yoga class in suburban New York
-- have sent letters to the USDA insisting that shoppers have a right to
know food is irradiated before buying it.
- "Consumers should not have to resort
to a dictionary to determine the meaning of disclosure terminology,"
said Carol Tucker Foreman, a former USDA official now with Consumer Federation
of America. "Disclosure, not obfuscation, is the purpose of the labeling."
- Foreman said a statement about irradiation
should appear on the front of the package, in big enough typeface for the
elderly to read.
- Most of the handwritten faxes, e-mails
and correspondence from the public arrived after the government's comment
period ended in late April. The volume convinced the USDA to reopen its
irradiation rule-making for another two weeks, a spokeswoman for USDA's
Food Safety and Inspection Service said.
- Meat expected to do well on the market
- The Center for Science in the Public
Interest and the American Association of Retired Persons said an April
survey showed "overwhelming support" for labeling. Of 1,000 adults
polled, a majority wanted to see "irradiation" on the product.
- Irradiated ground beef, when it becomes
available in stores, is expected to command a premium price. Likely customers
are nursing homes, hospitals, families with small children and consumers
with weak immune systems.
- Giant IBP Inc. and Cargill Inc.'s Excel
meat unit have already made plans to begin test-marketing irradiated beef
as soon as the USDA finishes its rules later this year. Both have signed
an agreement with Titan Corp., which expects to irradiate about 50 million
pounds of ground beef annually.
- A total of about 8 billion pounds of
ground beef is consumed each year in the United States.
- The meat companies are also preparing
a petition asking the USDA to expand irradiation to include processed meats
such as hot dogs and sausages. Earlier this year, 21 deaths were blamed
on ready-to-eat meats tainted with listeria.