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Provisions Designed to Increase Consumption of Irradiated Foods Were Slipped Into Farm Bill at Eleventh Hour

Feb. 26, 2002

Provisions Designed to Increase Consumption of Irradiated Foods Were Slipped Into Farm Bill at Eleventh Hour

Public Citizen Urges Lawmakers to Eliminate Deceptive Sections

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Two sections that were slipped into the U.S. Senate version of the farm bill just before its passage are attempts to encourage the expansion of irradiated food in the American diet.

Section 442 (“Use of Approved Food Safety Technology”) states that the Secretary of Agriculture cannot prohibit the purchase of commodities for nutrition programs it administers if those commodities have been treated with food safety technologies approved by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Among the technologies approved by HHS is irradiation. Programs covered include the National School Lunch Program and the Child Nutrition Act of 1966. Under current regulations, participants in those nutrition programs need not be informed that they are consuming irradiated foods.

The other section, Section 1079E (“Pasteurization”), directs the HHS Secretary to redefine pasteurization to include any process that HHS has approved to improve food safety. Irradiation is one of those processes. For the past five years, the food irradiation industry has been attempting to persuade the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to change the current labeling requirements for irradiated foods so that they could be labeled as either “cold pasteurized” or “electronic pasteurized.” But public opposition has been stiff.

Now, irradiated foods must be labeled as “treated with radiation” or “treated by irradiation.” The food irradiation industry has been advocating a change because consumers are reluctant to purchase irradiated foods.

Both of these provisions were added by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) to the Senate version of the farm bill (H.R. 2646) during the final hours of debate and were hidden in a 396-page amendment that few senators had seen prior to its being considered on the Senate floor. The Senate passed the farm bill on Feb. 13.

“These two sections must be removed by the conference committee that is now hammering out a final measure,” said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen?s Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. “The food irradiation industry is attempting to do an end-run around the regulatory agencies and sneak provisions into federal legislation to force consumers to purchase products they are rejecting now.”

Public Citizen has been waging a two-year campaign to halt further approvals of irradiated food by the federal government. Public Citizen has argued that the FDA has not followed its own protocols when approving irradiation to treat foods and that emerging research on chemical compounds formed when certain foods are irradiated indicate that they may be harmful to humans. (Click here to view Public Citizen?s reports.)

Last year, Public Citizen successfully organized an effort by consumers to block the U.S. Department of Agriculture from changing specifications to the national school lunch program that would have permitted the introduction of irradiated food into the program.

Public Citizen also has attempted to stop the industry from weakening current labeling requirements. Not only is it dishonest, but data show that consumers don?t approve of the move:

  • In a 1999 nationwide poll of 1,000 consumers conducted for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) by OmniTel, less than a quarter of those surveyed preferred changing the current labeling requirements to allow either “cold pasteurization” or “electronic pasteurization”;
  • After the FDA in 1999 proposed changing the current labeling requirements, it received more than 20,000 comments, with 98.2 percent of the respondents opposing the use of “pasteurization” to describe irradiated food;
  • Consumers participating in FDA focus groups during 2001 in Maryland, Minnesota and California unanimously rejected replacing the term “irradiation” with “pasteurization.” Consumers used phrases such as “sneaky,” “deceptive,” and “trying to fool us? to describe their reaction to making such a change;
  • In a January 2002 nationwide poll of 1,000 consumers conducted for Public Citizen by Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, only about a quarter of those surveyed preferred changing the current labeling requirements to either “cold pasteurization” or “electronic pasteurization.”

“It is unconscionable that there are those in the United States Congress who have fallen prey to the subterfuge that the food irradiation industry has been perpetrating against consumers,” Hauter said. “When it comes to food safety, the consumer?s right to know needs to be protected. The provisions in this bill are anti-consumer.”