Oct. 23, 2002

USDA Rule on Irradiated Produce is Huge Loss for Consumers, U.S. Farmers

Statement of Wenonah Hauter, Director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program

Public Citizen is extremely disappointed that the Bush administration has decided to approve a rule that will permit the import of irradiated fruits and vegetables. The rule, which was issued by the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and takes effect today, will benefit large food producers, processors and distributors at the expense of small farmers. It also will encourage the proliferation of irradiated food, which has not yet been proven safe for human consumption in the long term. With the adoption of this rule, APHIS, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is continuing its transformation from an agency that was created to protect American agriculture and consumers from foreign pests and diseases into an agency that promotes trade.

We, along with thousands of other consumers, opposed these regulations from the time they were originally proposed during the Clinton administration because of their effects on food, farmers and health. Until the irradiation of food is shown to be safe, this technology should not be used to "treat" imported fruits and vegetables or any other food, for that matter. APHIS acknowledged receiving thousands of comments from citizens who raised safety concerns, but the agency apparently chose to ignore them.

We oppose the rule for the following reasons:

  • It is unlikely that APHIS will have enough staff at U.S. ports to track imported irradiated fruits and vegetables so that they can be adequately labeled. With the agency’s rejection of mechanical indicators to identify containers transporting irradiated fruits and vegetables, tracking irradiated fruits and vegetables will be an added burden to an already understaffed workforce. If we don’t know it’s been irradiated when it arrives, we can’t label it, and consumers will not know what they are eating.
  • While the rule sets up a regime for inspection of foreign-based irradiation facilities, we do not believe it is adequate. It is unclear whether it will be a regular inspection process or a sporadic one, as we have seen for the USDA inspection of foreign meat plants that are deemed "equivalent" to domestic plants.
  • Virtually all types of food including fruits and vegetables suffer some level of nutrient destruction and loss of quality when irradiated. In many cases, even small doses can result in significant loss of vitamins and other nutrients, and a significant decline in food quality. Further, food loses nutrients as it ages. We can expect the irradiated produce to have therefore fewer nutrients because irradiation kills the bacteria that cause food to rot and greatly extends shelf life.
  • The government has not guaranteed that for those imported fruits and vegetables that will be irradiated on U.S. soil, invasive pests won’t reach our shores. The new rule will allow non-irradiated products to be imported into 35 states, where the USDA asserts that "fruit flies would not survive the winter." However, the USDA made this statement without providing any supporting evidence. In a report on invasive species released today by the Government Accounting Office, an APHIS official is quoted as saying that there is a "general lack of information" about the success of different measures to prevent the importation of invasive species, short of an outright ban on products from infested areas.

Extensive evidence suggests that cold and heat treatment of perishables – not the use of radiation – is the least expensive technique to control pests in imports. Numerous studies have shown that cold and heat treatments, which are already in use, can meet the mandated control level for insect control, especially when combined with basic sanitation methods.

Creating more opportunities for multinational companies to import "fresh" fruits and vegetables from farther-flung places will only serve to put small-scale American farmers – many of them single-family operations – at a further disadvantage. Small-scale farmers already suffering from the fallout of "free trade" agreements such as NAFTA don’t need more imports, which have resulted in the dumping of lower-priced fruits and vegetables onto American markets. This rule represents yet another blow to small fruit and vegetable producers in this country.

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