USDA continues taking comments on irradiated food in lunch program

Dec 19, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – Contrary to some reports, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will continue to take comments indefinitely on how it should implement a congressional directive to allow the purchase of irradiated food for the federal school lunch program, according to a department official.

A news release issued yesterday by the consumer group Public Citizen said the comment period would expire Dec 22, 30 days after it began. The group said the comment period is "too short given the massive public impacts." In addition, a Dec 17 report on the meat industry Web site Meatingplace.com said the comment deadline is Dec 20.

But Jerry Redding, a USDA press office spokesman in Washington, DC, told CIDRAP News, "There is not a deadline on the comments. This is not an official rule-making process, it's specification-writing process. . . .Whenever comments come in, they'll be read and posted and taken into consideration." He said he couldn't predict when USDA will complete the specifications.

Redding said he didn't know the source of reports that the comment period is about to end. Regarding the Public Citizen statement, he said, "I haven't talked to them, and I'm the guy that does the irradiated beef [issues]."

USDA has had a policy of not buying irradiated foods for its commodity programs, including the school lunch program. But in the farm bill passed last May, Congress ordered USDA not to exclude the use of any federally approved food safety technology when buying food for the commodity programs. USDA announced Nov 22 that it would take public comments as it considers how to implement the congressional directive. The announcement did not list a deadline for commenting.

The agency has been posting the received comments on one of its Web sites (see link below). A quick sampling of them suggests that a heavy majority of the writers oppose serving irradiated meat in school lunches. "Somebody did an e-mail campaign, but that's fine," said Redding. "Everybody needs to say what they want to say, and that's part of the process."

In preparing to write specifications, USDA will review the studies on the effects of irradiation on food palatability, appearance, and other issues and will commission additional studies if that is judged to be necessary, Redding said. "I wouldn't even make a guesstimate" on when the process will be finished and a new policy announced, he said. USDA officials had said in October that a policy change could occur as early as the end of this year.

Including irradiated meat in school lunch programs "never will be mandatory, at least not in the foreseeable future," Redding said. The choice will be up to individual school districts, working through state education departments, he added.

As announced previously, comments on the issue can be sent to USDA at Livestock and Seed Programs, US Department of Agriculture, Stop 0249, Room 2092-S, Washington, DC 20250-0249. Comments can be sent by e-mail to foodsafetytechnology@usda.gov and by fax to 202-720-3499.

See also:

Nov 22 USDA announcement inviting comments
http://www.usda.gov/documents/NewsReleases/2002/11/0484.doc

Public Citizen news release
http://www.citizen.org/pressroom/release.cfm?ID=1286

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