New farm bill may promote food irradiation, but changes could be slow

Jun 17, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The farm bill that was recently passed by Congress creates at least a possibility that irradiated foods eventually will be sold as "pasteurized" and served in government-subsidized school lunches. But it appears that those changes won't happen quickly, if they happen at all.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, authored two farm bill amendments intended to promote the acceptance of irradiated foods. Both amendments were approved by the Senate, and both survived in the House-Senate compromise that was enacted. But just how and when federal agencies will implement the amendments is not clear.

Current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) rules say that irradiated retail foods must be labeled "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation" and must carry a logo called the radura. Food industry groups have advocated the use of terms such as "electronic pasteurization" and "cold pasteurization" in place of "irradiation," contending that the processes have the same effects and that "irradiation" needlessly alarms consumers.

One of Harkin's amendments was designed to allow irradiated foods to be labeled as pasteurized if irradiation makes them just as safe as pasteurization. In the final bill, this is coupled with a directive to the FDA to review its labeling rules. Until that review is done, the law states, the FDA can consider requests for labeling changes on particular food items. In doing so, the agency must determine that any label revision would not be misleading. This additional provision makes it unlikely that the FDA would actually approve any requests to sell irradiated foods as pasteurized, in the opinion of Eric Juzenas, an aide to Harkin who serves on the Agriculture Committee staff.

The other Harkin amendment aims to clear the way for the USDA to buy irradiated foods for the National School Lunch Program and similar programs, though it does not require USDA to do so. The department is evaluating the law, and there is no word on whether or how soon it might change its purchasing practices, which currently exclude irradiated foods, USDA officials told CIDRAP News.

Labeling rules
The food labeling clauses in the new law do not mention irradiation explicitly. Instead, they broaden the definition of pasteurization to include any safe process that is at least as protective as pasteurization and is reasonably certain to kill the most resistant pathogens likely to occur in the food. The provisions are found in Title X of the act, covering miscellaneous issues.

The language dealing with pasteurization is followed by the clause that directs the FDA to review and revise its current regulation on labeling of irradiated foods. This section does not say how the regulation should be changed, but simply says Department of Health and Human Services must invite public comments and then revise the regulation "as appropriate." Until a new rule is issued, the clause adds, anyone can petition the FDA for permission to change the labeling of an irradiated food, provided that the change "is not false or misleading in any material respect."

Juzenas said the House-Senate conference committee revised the language addressing labeling to provide greater assurance that any irradiated food labeled as pasteurized will be just as safe as conventionally pasteurized food. "People felt pretty strongly that FDA should review those claims," he said. "The language that came out of the Senate was not clear about that. FDA has to review the data submitted and verify that the process actually does achieve the level of public health that people expect."

A food processor that wants to label irradiated food as pasteurized will have to show that the process is just as effective as pasteurization, Juzenas said. That would probably mean demonstrating a 5- to 6-log reduction in microbes, "which is pretty much the standard definition of pasteurization." After that, "They could petition FDA to allow that [pasteurization] as an alternative labeling claim," he said. "But FDA would have to determine if that's an effective disclosure for how it's been treated. Basically unless they [FDA] revise their irradiation rule, it's pretty unlikely they'll allow anything but 'irradiation' on the label."

FDA officials aren't predicting how the farm bill will affect the rules on food labeling. "We're currently reviewing whether we need to make any changes in our current operating practices in order to implement what was passed," said Sebastian Cianci, an FDA spokesman. "We 're reviewing it to see if anything will require new guidance to be issued."

The clause directing the FDA to revise the labeling rules for irradiated foods echoes a similar provision in the FDA Modernization Act of 1997. That law directed the FDA to propose changes in the labeling rules and invite public comment. FDA officials told CIDRAP News last March that they were reviewing the labeling rules and planned to submit a report to Congress by Sep 30. Juzenas said the 1997 directive was really only a recommendation, whereas the language in the new law is a "legislative requirement to review the rule." However, the new directive does not set a deadline for the review.

Food processors group praises bill
Kristin Pearson, a spokeswoman for the National Food Processors Association (NFPA) in Washington, DC, hailed the farm bill as a positive step for food safety and irradiation but stopped short of predicting any early changes in the labeling rules. "We believe that it will continue to allow encouragement of use of irradiation to make food safer," she said. "We think the current labeling requirements put in place by FDA inhibit the use of irradiation, and the requirements create a warning, in a sense, to consumers."

The FDA has "sort of been dragging its heels" on its review of the labeling rules, said Pearson, who is NFPA's director of federal legislative affairs. "The challenge we need to get over is prescriptive labeling requirements," she said. "We believe that irradiation and a number of other technologies in the future achieve the same goal as pasteurization." Consequently, she said, "That term should be free to use," and that's what Congress is telling the FDA. However, she said it will be up to the FDA to decide if "pasteurization" is an accurate label for any given irradiated food, assuming the petitioner can show that irradiation has the same effect.

Pearson could not say if any food processors are planning to ask the FDA for permission to replace "irradiation" with "pasteurization" on food labels. But if Huisken Meats, the first US company to market irradiated meat, is representative, food processors may not be in a big hurry to do that.

"We're still evaluating what that legislation means in terms of its practical application," said Cliff Albertson, sales and marketing manager for the company, based in Chandler, Minn. "We don't want to go down that path [of seeking to change product labels] till we're positive what path we're going down."

Huisken has been selling irradiated frozen ground beef patties for about 2 years. "We've found that consumers, once given good reliable information, really don't have much problem with the term [irradiation]. We think subjectively that the term 'pasteurization' may have some benefits. . . . But to change that term, we want to think about it before we do it, because we've had pretty good success with getting the term 'irradiated for safety' accepted by the public. We want to do some talking with consumers about it."

When asked whether consumers will think it's misleading to use "pasteurization" as a label stand-in for "irradiation," Albertson said, "That's the $64 question." He said his company will look into it by talking with people who sample Huisken products at state fairs and other public events this summer.

Irradiation in USDA nutrition programs
The farm bill clause pertaining to USDA nutrition programs, like those addressing food labels, doesn’t mention irradiation specifically. It simply states that any food-safety technology that has been approved by the secretary of agriculture or secretary of HHS can be used in the National School Lunch Program and related programs.

Susan Acker, a USDA spokeswoman in Washington, said USDA has "a longstanding practice of not purchasing irradiated foods," though that practice is not dictated by law. USDA officials could not predict whether or when the farm bill language will prompt the agency to start buying irradiated foods for school programs. Billy Cox, an agency spokesman in Washington, said, "USDA is still evaluating it and has not made a decision."

Albertson, of Huisken Foods, said USDA buying of irradiated foods for the school programs could be a boost for the technology. "But the bigger issue is that it makes so much sense for the safety of school children," he said. "For eliminating a health risk in the school system, I think it's absolutely wonderful."

See also:

Farm bill provisions on labeling of irradated foods and use of food safety technology in USDA food programs. A table of contents for the lengthy bill is found at the site for the conference committee report of the bill: House Report 107-424. Links for the relevant sections follow:
Section 10808. Pasteurization
Section 10809. Rulemaking on Labeling of Irradiated Food; Certain Petitions
Section 4201: Commodity Supplemental Food Program (See clause [l], "Use of approved safety technology")

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