Processors will be allowed to irradiate raw beef, pork and lamb to eliminate deadly bacteria and other organisms, but products will have to carry labels informing shoppers of the treatment, the government said yesterday.
"While there is no single silver bullet to cure all food safety problems, irradiation has been shown to be both safe and effective," Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said.
Labels on irradiated products, including sausage made from irradiated beef or pork, will have to carry the international symbol of irradiation, known as a "radura," and a statement that they were treated. The symbol, colored green on a white background, depicts two leaves resting in a semicircle, with a green dot above it beneath a broken-lined semicircle.
Irradiation, which already was approved for poultry, is the only known method to eliminate deadly E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria in raw meat and also can significantly reduce levels of other pathogens, including listeria, salmonella and campylobacter.
Irradiation had to be approved by both USDA, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over food additives. The FDA approved irradiation in 1997.
The agencies are also being asked to include in the approved group ready-to-eat products such as hot dogs and luncheon meats.
Irradiation is seldom used for poultry, but E. coli is more common in beef. Initially, irradiated meat is likely to be most popular with hospitals and nursing homes, because of the danger E. coli poses to patients with weak immune systems, said Carol Tucker Foreman, a distinguished fellow with the Consumer Federation of America.
"I don't expect you're going to get it for sale at McDonald's any time soon. It takes a while to build the facilities," she said.
E. coli 0157 can cause serious illness and sometimes death, especially in children and the elderly. An estimated 73,480 people are infected each year and about 600 cases are fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tim Willard, a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, said the USDA decision was "long overdue."