Consumers Urge USDA

To Label Irradiated Meat

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 are buying.

The Agriculture Department is trying to finalize a set of rules allowing American companies to begin treating raw ground beef with irradiation.

The process 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 about 20,000 Americans annually and kills 250.

Meat companies, public health officials and many consumer groups agree that irradiation rules should be adopted as quickly as possible to protect the public. But they are at sharp odds over how--or even whether--to inform grocery shoppers about irradiated packages of meat.

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 the USDA.

The meat industry has lobbied the USDA for permission to use instead the phrase "cold pasteurized" because shoppers are used to seeing that on milk cartons.

More than 700 consumers have sent letters to the USDA insisting that shoppers have a right to know that 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 the Consumer Federation of America.

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.

Farmers Due First Checks

For Disaster Aid This Week

Farmers waiting for $2 billion in emergency disaster aid will begin to see checks this week. Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said at a Senate Agriculture hearing last week that payments to 266,000 farmers will begin Tuesday.

The money was included in an overall $6 billion farm aid package passed by Congress last fall. The Clinton administration already used $400 million of the $2.3 billion in disaster payments to lower farmers' 1999 crop insurance premiums.

"This assistance should provide additional, needed relief to farmers still reeling from recent costly natural disasters," Glickman said.

Farmers will be paid 84.9 percent of qualifying single-year or multiyear losses, officials said. The average payment is about $7,000; the maximum is $67,920.

Glickman and his agency have been widely criticized for the delay in distributing the money, which Congress approved in October.

Glickman has maintained that the massive aid package, which included provisions for everyone from dairy to grain farmers, was "complex" to administer.

The agency distributed $2.8 billion in payments to compensate for low prices shortly after the package was passed. But distributing the $2.3 billion in disaster payments, which cover disasters and disease, was burdensome, officials have said.

One complication was that the emergency package covered farmers who have suffered crop losses over several years before 1998 or who had losses only in 1998--a provision that took an enormous amount of time to compile.

Also, the disaster package included seven new programs, including aid for livestock and dairy farmers, Glickman has said.

Wild Horses Are Relocated

From Home on the Range

WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M.--The last 100 wild horses roaming the vast White Sands Missile Range were rounded up last week and moved to a preserve because they are running out of food, officials said.

Wild horses lived in the arid and rocky ranch lands in southern New Mexico long before the military took over the area as a missile-testing base in 1940.

Base spokesman Jim Eckles said overpopulation among the horses and competition with 3,000 African oryx, introduced years ago by New Mexico officials as an exotic game animal, mean the horses no longer can survive here.

Starvation first struck in 1994, killing 120 out of a population of 1,500 horses.

Since then, the U.S. government and animal protection groups have sold hundreds of the survivors to private owners as pets. The last 100 that could not be placed with new owners were shipped last week to a 5,000-acre ranch in South Dakota that has been converted to a private preserve for wild horses, said Karen Sussman, president of the Arizona-based Society for the Protection of Mustangs and Burros, which found the new home for the White Sands herd.

"These horses will now be allowed to live totally free and wild forever," Sussman said.