Meat Industry INSIGHTS Newsletter

990641 Food Groups Press FDA to Expand Irradiation Use

June 24, 1999

Washington - The Food and Drug Administration should move swiftly to approve irradiation to kill illness-causing germs on hot dogs, vegetables, fruits and juices, a coalition of food and public health groups said Tuesday.

The Food Irradiation Coalition, led by the National Food Processors Association, said it would submit a formal petition to the FDA by the end of July requesting the change in federal regulations.

Irradiation can kill deadly bacteria such as listeria monocytogenes, which claimed 21 lives earlier this year in contaminated hot dogs made by Sara Lee Corp.

Consumer groups worried about foodborne illness in children, the elderly and others with weak immune systems have reluctantly embraced the technology, which uses tiny doses of gamma rays or electron beams to sterilize food.

“This is an absolutely essential tool for food safety,” said Rhona Applebaum, vice president of the food processors group. The FDA should act on the petition at the end of a 180-day period for analysis and public comments, she said.

The FDA took several years to study irradiation before approving it as a safe procedure for raw ground beef in December 1997, but rules still have not been finalized for meatpackers to use the technology. Under complicated federal food safety laws, the U.S. Agriculture Department has authority over all meat and poultry plants and it has yet to spell out how irradiation can be used.

Officials with USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service spent more than a year drafting proposed rules for irradiation, and have promised to finalize them as soon as possible.

The separate review of irradiation by the FDA and the USDA is a waste of time and resources, and shouldn't be repeated with the planned petition for ready-to-eat meat, Applebaum said.

“We're going to continue to press the USDA and the FDA to get their act together,” she said.

The coalition, which includes the American Meat Institute, the American Dietetic Association and other food groups and academic experts, will also lobby Congress to change a 1958 federal law that classified irradiation as a “food additive” instead of a process. By law, the FDA has jurisdiction over all food additives.

The head of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said last winter that food safety issues would be a top priority for the agency this year.

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