WASHINGTON — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has issued a proposal to change the way irradiated food is labeled. The measure, if passed, would allow manufacturers to petition the agency to use alternate terms for irradiation — such as pasteurization — or dispense with a label entirely, if the irradiation process causes no “material change” to the nutritional or functional properties of the food.
The FDA, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture, have long approved of the process as a highly effective “kill step” that eliminates foodborne pathogens such as E. coli and Listeria during processing by exposing food to ionizing radiation. Similar changes to the labeling requirement have been proposed by the FDA several times before, most recently in 2002.
However, shopper acceptance of irradiation has been mixed, with past consumer surveys indicating broad unfamiliarity with both the term and the technology. Environmental and food activism groups, meanwhile, have vocally protested the use of irradiation in food processing, arguing that the levels of radiation used to treat some foods are equivalent to dozens of chest X-rays, and not enough is yet known about how such an application affects products on a molecular level.
“We don't think there's been an adequate demonstration that this process is safe and that it does not alter the food in a manner that is potentially dangerous to consumers,” said Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based food activism group.
“There are studies that focus on how [irradiation] reduces E. coli, but ignore the host of other issues that surround it. For example, in some foods, the process creates unique radiolytic products — byproducts of the radiation — that only appear in irradiated food.”
These byproducts may be carcinogenic, and the irradiation process may also destroy vitamins and nutrients contained in many foods, Mendelson argued.
Advocates of the technology, including the FDA, say these concerns are exaggerated. And while many major fresh food producers have been hesitant to adopt the technology, many support it in principle.
“We support irradiation as an additional food safety technology that can be used to enhance beef safety systems,” said Randy Irion, director of retail marketing for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. “Safety is beef producers' No. 1 priority, and there are multiple interventions already in place throughout the beef production chain to ensure that consumers can feel confident in the safety of beef.”
Similarly, some retailers have even tried marketing irradiation as an additional safety measure, worthy of a price premium.
Notably, Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans Food Markets has actively embraced irradiation technology with its own private label: “Wegmans Irradiated Fresh Ground Beef,” positioning it as a product that is safer for shoppers who prefer beef cooked rare.
Launched in 2002, the brand was discontinued in 2003 when the company's supplier went bankrupt, but was relaunched in August 2006, with Mary Ellen Burris, vice president of consumer affairs, announcing in her online column that Wegmans was “happily reintroducing this ‘cook it the way you like it’ alternative to our standard ground beef line-up.”
The FDA is currently receiving comments on the proposal from any interested parties through the end of June 2007 on the agency's dockets website at www.fda.gov/ohrms/dockets.