Shoppers Beware: USDA Approves Nuked Meat!

By Wenonah Hauter, Public Citizen

Under pressure from the meat industry, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced on December 14, 1999 that refrigerated or frozen raw beef, pork, lamb, as well as meat products can be treated with radiation to kill microorganisms that cause disease. USDA also weakened its existing regulations for poultry, including no longer requiring that poultry be irradiated in the package in which it is sold. This means that irradiated poultry products can be used as ingredients in further processed products, such as TV dinners.

Unfortunately, rather than cleaning up the filthy conditions at large corporate farms and industrial slaughterhouses, the meat industry and their allies in the Government are promoting food irradiation as a way to prevent food-borne illness. Food irradiation will not solve the problems associated with the unsanitary conditions at huge factory-sized farms, from which feces-covered animals are transported to industrial-sized slaughtering facilities. Workers at these facilities are increasingly required to speedup, sometimes "processing" as many as 300 cows an hour, and too few USDA inspectors are on hand to insure that procedures to prevent contamination are followed.

USDA's Retail Labeling Requirements for Meat

While the new USDA rule does include a requirement for labeling irradiated meat and poultry products sold at retail, meat served in facilities like restaurants, hospitals or school cafeterias does not have to be labeled. This means that consumers will have no way of insuring that the meat they eat in these places is not irradiated. Consumers of fast food burgers should be especially concerned, since hamburger patties are a prime candidate for irradiation.

Moreover, if the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not continue to require labeling, the USDA is unlikely to require labeling. USDA is "harmonizing" all of their food regulations with the FDA. Requirements are as follows:

1) Packaged meat products irradiated in their entirety must bear the international radura symbol. Unfortunately, the symbol, which contains simple petals in a broken circle, is benevolent looking and its meaning is not widely recognized. Additionally, products must either include the word "Irradiated" as part of the product name or must bear a statement such as "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation." The radura must be placed in conjunction with the required statement, if the statement is used. The statement is not required to be more prominent than the declaration of ingredients and it can be anywhere on the package.

2) Unpackaged meat products irradiated in their entirety are required to have the radura symbol and a statement "prominently and conspicuously" displayed to purchasers either through labeling on a bulk container or "some other appropriate device." The agency does not define what this "other appropriate device" could be.

3) The USDA also allows labeling statements and claims regarding the "beneficial effects" and the purpose of irradiation.

4) Multi-ingredient products, which include an irradiated meat product, must only reflect its inclusion in the ingredient statement on the finished product's label.

5) The USDA cancelled two labeling requirements for poultry. The requirement that a) "letters used for the qualifying statement shall be no less than one-third the size of the largest letter in the product name," and b), that the radura logo on irradiated poultry labels be colored green, have been eliminated.

6) The USDA weakened the Food Additive Law and also ended its oversight of the use of food additives (irradiation is considered an additive). In the future, the FDA will be the sole agency regulating food additives. The USDA says it will "discuss" with FDA their concerns about additives used in meat and poultry. The new rule is the latest in a series of so-called "reforms" that make it easier for the food industry to get regulatory approval, but decrease protections for consumers. The new rule will shorten by two to five years the time required for the approval process for additives.

USDA Approves Meat Irradiation Without Proof of Safety

The legalization of food irradiation is based on a house of cards. No studies have been done to show that a long-term diet of irradiated foods is safe. In legalizing the irradiation of raw meat, the USDA relied upon the FDA's determination that food irradiation is safe. Unfortunately, the FDA based their legalization of food irradiation on shaky scientific evidence.

A special task force of the FDA reviewed a large body of scientific literature on the toxicological testing of irradiated food. However, they based their approval of food irradiation on only five studies. The FDA task force reviewed over 2000 studies, over 400 of which met a high enough standard that they could potentially have been reviewed. Obviously, since the FDA used such a small sample, the potential for bias is great. Furthermore, because they were unable to provide definitive evidence of the safety of irradiated food, the FDA eventually based their legalization of food irradiation on a theoretical model about how many new chemicals ("radiolytic products," some of which are carcinogens) are formed in the food by irradiation.

Take Action Now!

Write or call Congress to protest irradiation. For more info call or email Nukewatch or Public Citizen (see Resources). Ask your Rep.'s and Senators to demand that Health and Human Services Secretary Shalala not lift the FDA requirement that irradiated foods be labeled. (Donna Shalala, US Dept. of Health and Human Services, 200 Independence Ave., SW. Washington, DC 20201.)

Wenonah Hauter is the director of Public Citizen's Critical Mass Energy Project.

[Food and Water, Inc. has cards to let your grocer know that you don't want irradiated food on the shelves. See Resources]