How does cold-pasteurized hamburger sound to you?
It's music to the ears of the food industry, which hopes that the current rules for labeling irradiated food will soon be changed to allow terms such as "cold-pasteurized" on foods that have undergone the treatment to kill various pathogens.
The irradiated hamburger appearing in an increasing number of supermarket meat cases -- including Giant Food as of Sunday -- now cannot carry such terminology, but several new directives from Congress have given the food industry a boost in its long campaign to change how irradiated food is labeled.
To the dismay of consumer groups that regard irradiating food as dangerous and under-researched, three provisions in the 2002 Farm Bill (the Farm Security and Investment Act of 2002) would open the door to changing current FDA rules. Those rules require labels to say "treated with radiation" or "treated by radiation." The package also has to display an international symbol in the shape of a flower called a radura to alert consumers to the special processing. The Agriculture Department, which shares labeling responsibilities with the Food and Drug Administration, allows variations on meat and poultry labeling, currently allowing companies to use statements such as "Treated with irradiation for your food safety."
The food industry and its critics have long been concerned with the question of what to call irradiated food. The process uses gamma rays, electrons or X-rays to kill pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. But to some, the process and the word conjures up images of radioactive food that has been zapped with nuclear energy. The World Health Organization has deemed the process safe, while consumer groups such as Public Citizen have said too little research has been done on the chemicals that are formed in irradiated food.
Since 1963, the FDA has approved a long list of foods for irradiation, including spices, pork, poultry, red meat, eggs, sprouts and seeds, juice, and fresh fruits and vegetables. As use of the process has grown, the food industry, led by the National Food Processors Association, has been pushing for labeling changes that would supplement the word "irradiation" or replace it altogether. "Cold pasteurization" just doesn't sound as scary.
"It has always been the goal of the industry to eliminate the word. They wanted another synonym," said Anthony Corbo, legislative representative for Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "They've gotten cute in saying radiation is like pasteurization or using a microwave." Pasteurization is a heat treatment used to kill bacteria in milk, juice, eggs and some fish.
The Minnesota Beef Council says on its Web site: "Irradiation is nothing more than a form of cold pasteurization. It is just another method of food preservation like freezing, drying, canning, pickling, pasteurization or fermentation."
Since 1999, when the FDA began looking at labeling changes for irradiated products, the industry indicated that it would like to call irradiated food almost anything but irradiated. It felt that the word, along with the radura, looked more like a warning than an assurance of safety to consumers.
"We would like to see this opened up so there is a clearer understanding among consumers," said Timothy Willard, spokesman for the National Food Processors Association. "The allowable statements are too narrow."
But the FDA was unconvinced about changing the labeling requirements. The effort stumbled when consumers, queried in focus groups about changing the labeling, said they wanted to know that food had been irradiated. Consumers also said they didn't consider current labels cautionary.
The provisions in the farm bill accelerate the regulatory process, or bypass it altogether. Backed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the provisions require the FDA to consider allowing use of the word "pasteurization"; companies could petition the agency for such "alternative labeling" if the process used is as effective as pasteurization. The FDA also is directed to issue an entirely new labeling rule, and in the meantime companies could ask the agency to consider other kinds of labels for their products. Finally, it allows the Agriculture Department to drop its ban on irradiated beef in the nation's school lunch program, a change that is likely to result in a proposal to do just that by the end of the year.
In response to the bill, the FDA issued guidance to companies last month telling them how they could petition for changes to their labeling. The agency does not have to make public the petitions, or take comments on them. It also must respond to them in 180 days, and rejections can be appealed in court.
Public Citizen considers the bill's provisions to be end runs around the regulatory process. "It's been done in a very underhanded way," Corbo said.
ODonna Mathews, vice president of consumer affairs for Giant Food, expects there will be consumer interest in the product, which is labeled as irradiated ground beef, displays the radura as well as the phrase "irradiated for food safety." In its news release, announcing the arrival of 93 percent lean and 85 percent lean irradiated ground beef, Giant said the process is "environmentally safe and non-nuclear."
It added that it's much like milk pasteurization.