FDA invites companies to propose substitutes for 'irradiation' on food labels

Oct 11, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced this week that companies can petition the agency for permission to use terms like "electronic pasteurization" in place of "irradiation" on the labeling for irradiated foods.

The farm bill that was passed in May directed the FDA to review its labeling regulations for irradiated foods and, until the review is done, to allow companies to seek permission to change the labeling for specific irradiated products. In response, the FDA, in an Oct 7 Federal Register notice, announced the availability of a guidance document advising companies how to propose labeling changes.

Current rules require that irradiated foods carry the words "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation," along with a symbol called the radura. Some food industry groups have advocated using "electronic pasteurization" or "cold pasteurization" in place of "irradiation," asserting that the processes have the same effects and that "irradiation" needlessly scares consumers. Critics argue that such changes would mislead consumers.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, inserted the labeling provisions in the farm bill in an effort to promote acceptance of irradiated foods. The law says companies can petition the FDA "for approval of labeling, which is not false or misleading in any material respect, of a food that has been treated by irradiation." The law does not specify what terms companies can propose to use, but its intent, as explained by Harkin's office before the bill was passed, is to permit the use of "electronic pasteurization" and similar terms, provided companies can show that irradiation is just as effective as conventional pasteurization. The FDA is directed to approve or deny such petitions within 180 days.

The FDA guidance statement says petitioners should submit all relevant supporting information, including research showing that consumers understand the purpose and intent of the proposed labeling. The supporting information can include comparisons of consumer understanding and acceptance of the proposed labeling and of currently required labeling.

A Reuters news report this week said the FDA is expected to publish proposed changes in the current labeling requirements soon. A phone call to the agency to ask when the changes will be proposed was not returned in time for this story.

See also:

FDA Federal Register notice

FDA guidance document

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