Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

990614 Battle Over Labels for Irradiated Beef

June 4, 1999

Washington - 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.

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

The process, developed to safeguard food carried into space by U.S. astronauts, would expose uncooked meat to tiny amounts of electron beams that penetrate and kill deadly bugs such as E. coli 0157:H7. That virulent form of bacteria sickens an estimated 20,000 Americans annually, and kills 250.

Meat companies, public health officials and many consumer groups agree 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 USDA.

The meat industry is so worried about the word “irradiation,” it has lobbied the USDA for permission to instead use the phrase “cold pasteurized” because shoppers are used to seeing that on milk cartons.

More than 700 consumers -- including retired schoolteachers, parents, and a yoga class in suburban New York -- have sent letters to the USDA insisting that shoppers have a right to know 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 Consumer Federation of America. “Disclosure, not obfuscation, is the purpose of the labeling.”

Foreman said a statement about irradiation should appear on the front of the package, in big enough typeface for the elderly to read.

Most of the hand-written faxes, e-mails and correspondence from the public arrived after the government's comment period ended in late April. The volume convinced the USDA to reopen its irradiation rulemaking for another two weeks, a spokeswoman for USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service said.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest and the American Association of Retired Persons said an April survey showed “overwhelming support” for labeling. Of 1,000 adults polled, a majority wanted to see “irradiation” on the product.

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.

Giant IBP Inc. and Cargill Inc.'s Excel meat unit have already made plans to begin test marketing irradiated beef as soon as the USDA finishes its rules later this year. Both have signed an agreement with Titan Corp., which expects to irradiate about 50 million pounds of ground beef annually.

A total of about 8 billion pounds of ground beef is consumed each year in the United States.

The meat companies are also preparing a petition asking the USDA to expand irradiation to include processed meats such as hot dogs and sausages. Earlier this year, 21 deaths were blamed on ready-to-eat meats tainted with listeria.

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