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FTC Inquiry Into ‘Pasteurization’ Ads Under Way; USDA Refutes Food Irradiation Company’s Claims

Oct. 4, 2001

FTC Inquiry Into ‘Pasteurization’ Ads Under Way; USDA Refutes Food Irradiation Company’s Claims

Government Responds Following False Advertising Complaints Against SureBeam

WASHINGTON, D.C. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is looking into a leading food irradiation company’s use of the word “pasteurization” in its advertisements for irradiated food products. Also, a high-ranking U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) official has refuted public claims by the company that the agency gave it permission to describe its irradiation process as “pasteurization.”

The official also said the company’s claim that its irradiation process is equivalent to pasteurization is not based on any analysis by the USDA.

The government’s involvement comes in response to two false advertising complaints filed by Public Citizen with the FTC against SureBeam Corp., an affiliate of San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corp. The companies have adapted high-energy linear accelerators originally designed for the “Star Wars” program to irradiate food.

Unlike pasteurization, which kills microorganisms with heat, SureBeam’s process uses ionizing radiation in the form of electrons traveling near the speed of light. Yet the company almost exclusively calls its process “electronic pasteurization” in its advertising material, on its Web site, in its press releases, when interviewed by reporters and in other public communications.

The USDA has said that calling irradiated food products “pasteurized” is “misleading.” Deceptive advertising is illegal under the U.S. Federal Trade Commission Act and is punishable through criminal and civil penalties, including fines, court injunctions and corrective advertising.

Polls indicate that many Americans are leery of irradiated food and want these products to be accurately labeled. Using such euphemisms as “electronic pasteurization” and “cold pasteurization” can mislead people into believing the food has not been irradiated.

“The question is not whether American consumers are being misled by SureBeam. Clearly, they are,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The question is, how will the company mislead consumers? The answer is: By any means necessary.”

In an Aug. 21 article by the Reuters Health news service, a SureBeam spokesperson was paraphrased as saying the company’s machines “are capable of pasteurizing products, and that is a claim that the Agriculture Department allows the firm to make.”

In a Sept. 29 letter to Public Citizen, however, Deputy Administrator Philip Derfler of the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) refuted both of those claims: “Neither SureBeam nor any other firm has yet presented FSIS with data proving that their irradiated meat and poultry products are, in fact, ‘pasteurized,’ ” Derfler wrote. “Additionally, neither SureBeam nor any other firm has yet presented FSIS with labeling bearing the term ‘pasteurized’ that was not viewed as misleading.”

Derfler also stated that the FTC “is examining the issue” of SureBeam’s use of the word “pasteurization” in its advertising material.

Public Citizen has filed two false advertising complaints against SureBeam – the first on June 26, shortly after SureBeam placed ads on the Internet promoting its “electronically pasteurized foods.” The second was filed Aug. 21, when Public Citizen requested that the FTC initiate a thorough investigation into the advertising practices of SureBeam and four other food irradiation companies whose Web sites predominantly use the word “pasteurization” to describe their services.

In the Reuters Health article, SureBeam spokesperson Wil Williams denied that the company uses the word “pasteurization” on its Web site. Contrary to Williams’ assertion, as of today the word appears 23 times on the site’s main pages, while “irradiation” appears only four times.

In March, Public Citizen also filed false advertising complaints against two of SureBeam’s most high-profile clients, Omaha Steaks of Nebraska (which sells high-end meat products through the mail), and Huisken Meats of Minnesota (a meatpacker that supplies grocery stores). The two companies have since corrected their Web sites to say that their ground beef products have been “irradiated.”

SureBeam, however, has significantly expanded its use of the word “pasteurization” in promotional material, using it repeatedly in advertisements appearing in major newspapers and on television, radio stations and the Internet. In half-page newspaper ads that ran this past summer in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, for example, SureBeam said its technique “is much like milk pasteurization.”