New Rules for Irradiation Labeling?

Lynn A. Kuntz Comments
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The word “irradiation,” in terms of food, still has a tendency to bring to mind glow-in-the-dark grapes or mutant melons. However, that may change: FDA is proposing to revise the labeling regulations for foods and dietary supplements for which irradiation has been approved. If passed into law, only foods that undergo a “material change,” or that create “a material change in the consequences that may result from the use of the food,” need bear the current radura logo and the word “irradiated,” or a similar term.

FDA considers a “material change” as a “change in the organoleptic, nutritional, or functional properties of a food, caused by irradiation, that the consumer could not identify at the point of purchase in the absence of appropriate labeling.” FDA also proposes to allow companies to submit petitions for an alternate term to “irradiation,” other than “pasteurized,” and to allow the term “pasteurized” if the process meets the FDA criteria for use of the term. Companies can continue to voluntarily use the irradiation labeling if applicable.

Irradiation exposes foods to high-energy gamma or beta (e-beam) rays to prevent growth of pathogenic bacteria, eliminate parasites, or delay ripening and spoilage. Currently, FDA has approved irradiation for certain foods, including spices, shell eggs and fruits and vegetables. However, according to a report by the U.S. General Accounting Office, only 0.005% of U.S. fruits and vegetables (about 1.5 million lbs.), and 9.5% of all spices consumed in the United States (about 95 million lbs. of spices and dried aromatic vegetables) are irradiated each year.

However, opponents are objecting to the proposed changes. Food and Water Watch, an offshoot of advocacy group Public Citizen, said in a release: “The public is no more enthusiastic about changing the label than about irradiated food itself. Thousands of Americans submitted comments in opposition to proposed changes (to) irradiation labels in 1999 and 2002 (when FDA announced that companies could petition for permission to use terms like “electronic pasteurization” in place of “irradiation”), and polls consistently demonstrate consumer support for accurate labeling with the word ‘irradiation.’”

Proponents say that more than 40 years of research on the process has shown that foods exposed to low levels of irradiation are safe and wholesome, and they retain high quality with minimal organoleptic changes. CDC estimates that if 50% of the U.S. meat and poultry were irradiated, it could prevent nearly 900,000 cases of infection, 8,500 hospitalizations, over 6,000 catastrophic illnesses, and 350 deaths from foodborne illness each year. Recent large-scale outbreaks in such products as ground beef and spinach have renewed interest in the technology. Food-industry groups fear that current irradiation labels look like warnings, and discourage consumers from purchasing irradiated foods.

FDA is asking for written or electronic comments on the proposed rule by July 3, 2007.

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