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FDA Poised to Eliminate Labeling of Irradiated Food

June 29, 1999

FDA Poised to Eliminate Labeling of Irradiated Food

Citizens Demand to Know When Food is Nuked

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Thousands of citizens from around the country are writing to the Food and Drug Administration to protest a proposed new regulation that would result in consumers unknowingly buying food that has been treated with radiation.

Members of the public have until July 18 to register their complaints about the FDA proposal to eliminate the labeling of poultry, meat, vegetables and other food products that have been irradiated to prolong shelf life and kill food-borne pathogens that can result from unsanitary farming and food processing practices.

The FDA has received more than 3,000 comments from the public, in addition to a petition with 13,000 names. The public comment period was extended from May 18 at the request of Public Citizen and other consumer groups.

“Americans clearly want to know whether their food has been exposed to radiation, because they are concerned about the long-term health impacts of irradiation, as well as the environmental problems and the possibility of accidents involving the handling of radioactive materials used in the process,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy Project.

In April, a poll commissioned by the American Association of Retired Persons and the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that 88.6 percent of Americans favor labeling of irradiated food. A 1997 poll conducted by CBS News found that 73 percent of the public opposes irradiation, and 77 percent of the public would not eat irradiated food.

“Denying consumers the label information that would inform them that a food product has been exposed to radioactive elements cobalt-60 and cesium-137 is a back-door method of forcing irradiated food down the throats of Americans,” Hauter said. “The truth is that many consumers don?t want to buy food they know has been irradiated, so the food processing and nuclear industries are using their political muscle to force-feed Americans irradiated food without their knowledge.”

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization with 120,000 members nationwide, is organizing a grassroots campaign to oppose the anti-consumer regulation.

The long-term health effects of eating irradiated food are unknown. Irradiation reduces the vitamin content of food and creates new chemical substances called radiolytic products. Some of these substances are known carcinogens, like benzene, and others are completely new substances that have not been tested for toxicity.

Food irradiation has been approved in 40 countries but is used infrequently both here and abroad. Some countries, including Australia, Germany, Sweden and New Zealand, don?t allow it.

In irradiation facilities, food is exposed to large doses of ionizing radiation as it moves on conveyor belts past a radiation source. The primary materials used for irradiation are cobalt-60 and cesium-137. Cesium-137 is readily available in the form of waste from nuclear power plants and weapons facilities. The Department of Energy (DOE) processes the cesium-137 and makes it available to irradiation facilities. An increase in food irradiation will require an increase in the production and transport of these radioactive isotopes.

Over 550 new irradiation facilities would need to be built to irradiate various foodstuffs if irradiation expands according to industry projections. Existing irradiation facilities are already experiencing accidents. The likelihood of a serious accident happening in the future at one of these facilities is high. From 1974 to 1988, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) recorded 50 accidents at irradiation facilities in the 20 states in which irradiation is directly regulated by the NRC. Many of these facilities are used to sterilize medical equipment.

Corporate agri-business interests have lobbied the government for food irradiation because their unsanitary, inhumane and environmentally destructive factory farming practices have led to scandals about contaminated meat. In December 1997, the FDA amended food regulations to permit the irradiation of red meat, and the Department of Agriculture is now writing new regulations for the operation of irradiation plants. Congress, responding to corporate pressure, passed the 1997 FDA Modernization Act, which required the FDA to examine the labeling issue.