- CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Reuters) - The Clinton administration unveiled rules Friday
for treating raw 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 U.S. companies of 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 U.S. 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. (NYSE:SLE - news) plant in Michigan, according
to experts. The outbreak was blamed for 16 deaths.
- But the USDA's new guidelines apply only
to raw meat, and do not allow irradiation of packaged and processed products
like hot dogs. ``We believe the ability to irradiate ready-to-eat foods
after they are packaged is a critically important step,'' said American
Meat Institute president Patrick Boyle.
- 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 leave products with a slightly ``off taste,'' according to some
groups. Another issue is ensuring worker safety around radiation equipment.
- The labeling 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 want the information
prominently displayed in large typeface so shoppers know what they are
- ``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,''
- 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.
- Labeling 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
- 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 then took another 14 months to put together proposed
rules for how to use the technology.
- Irradiation was developed a generation
ago by Pillsbury Co.to prepare safe food for U.S. astronauts. The technology
has been used on spices, cereals and other foods for years.