WASHINGTON - The U.S. Food and Drug Administration promised to act soon on a three-year-old industry petition for permission to irradiate red meat to destroy disease-causing bacteria, a senior U.S. Agriculture Department official said on Thursday.
Food safety has become a high-profile issue for the USDA since last month's recall of a record 25 million lbs of hamburger patties suspected of being contaminated with an especially virulent form of E. coli bacteria. The recall ignited demands among some consumer groups that U.S. government move ahead on a long-pending request to use irradiation on beef to kill contaminants.
"I have assurances from the FDA that it has now made review of that petition a high priority," Catherine Wotecki, USDA undersecretary for food safety, told a Georgetown University conference on foodborne pathogens.
Wotecki, speaking to reporters after her speech, said the USDA was working with the FDA in reviewing irradiation technology so that a decision could occur faster.
"We are working in tandem with the FDA to speed up the process," she said. "Some studies indicate it (irradiation) is an effective technology but we are awaiting FDA's review."
The federal government has already approved the use of irradiation on pork and poultry to destroy disease-causing bacteria such as salmonella and trichina. Japan and several dozen other countries use irradiation to preserve the shelf life of foods such as potatoes, onions, fish and cereal grains.
Irradiation has been likened to milk pasteurization techniques by supporters, but critics say not enough is known about irradiation's potentially harmful effects.
The USDA, FDA and Centers for Disease Control would launch a national campaign in mid-October to educate consumers about safe food preparation.
Wotecki also said that the USDA investigation of Hudson Foods Inc was continuing, and that inspectors were checking the slaughter plants where the contaminated hamburger came from. Some 17 consumers in Colorado became ill from Hudsonhamburger meat earlier this summer.
In a related action, the Clinton Administration is expected to ask Congress to pass a law giving the FDA authority to halt fruit and vegetable imports from any country whose safety standards are not equal to those of the United States, according to an administration source.
Wednesday, more than 80 House lawmakers urged Clinton to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to improve border protections against potentially unsafe food imports.
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