Under farm bill, 'pasteurization' could replace 'irradiation' on food labels

Mar 21, 2002 (CIDRAP News) – The 2002 farm bill now before a House-Senate conference committee could change the marketing landscape for irradiated foods by allowing food processors to take the term "irradiation" off labels and replace it with "pasteurization."

The labeling provision is one of two irradiation-related items added to the farm bill by Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, just before it passed the Senate on Feb 13, according to Harkin staff members. The other item is a clause that would allow the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to buy irradiated food for federal nutrition programs such as the National School Lunch Program. Both measures were part of an amendment that included numerous other provisions offered by senators from both parties.

The House-Senate conference committee dealing with the farm bill held its first meeting Mar 13 and continued to meet this week, according to Bill Burton, a press spokesman for Harkin.

Current Food and Drug Administration (FDA) rules say that irradiated retail food products must be labeled as such if the whole product has been irradiated. Food industry groups have advocated the use of terms such as "cold pasteurization" and "electronic pasteurization" in place of "irradiation" on food labels because, they say, irradiation produces the same results as pasteurization and because "irradiation" arouses groundless fear. But Harkin's amendment has drawn fire from consumer groups that oppose food irradiation, such as Public Citizen, who say that labeling irradiated food as pasteurized is deceptive.

The labeling provision would allow the use of "pasteurization" in place of "irradiation" on labels of all foods for which irradiation is approved, according to Burton. Foods that can currently be irradiated include raw meat and poultry, wheat, white potatoes, 38 spices and herbs, and fresh fruits.

Burton said Harkin offered the labeling measure because "he thinks it will promote food safety." In reply to the charge that the labeling change would be deceptive, Burton said, "Harkin thinks of this as a food safety issue. They're not using radioactive isotopes to pasteurize this meat, so to use the term 'irradiation' is more misleading than to use any other term." Food irradiation as currently done often involves exposure to an electron beam rather than to a radioisotope such as cobalt 60.

Seth Bofeli, a Senate Agriculture Committee staff member, commented, "The intent of the legislation is to provide added information about why a product is irradiated." He noted that current Webster's dictionaries list partial sterilization with radiation as one of the definitions of pasteurization.

Critics have suggested that Harkin authored the labeling measure as a favor to SureBeam Corporation, a leading food irradiation company and operator of an irradiation plant in Sioux City, Iowa, but Burton dismissed that criticism as "foolish on its face."

Groups such as Public Citizen also have portrayed Harkin's inclusion of the irradiation-related measures as a devious last-minute maneuver to pass something that would not be likely to withstand normal legislative scrutiny. But though the 396-page amendment containing the two items was attached to the farm bill shortly before the bill was passed, there was nothing devious about it, according to Harkin's staff. Bofeli said the "manager's amendment" is a package of various provisions offered by members of the Agriculture Committee, and each member had the opportunity to object to any of them. Burton commented that the manager's amendment is "basically a procedural issue, whereby folks from both parties get together and try to work out some of the smaller technical issues."

Harkin's labeling provision does not mention irradiation explicitly. Instead, it defines pasteurization as any safe treatment that is described as pasteurization under existing federal laws or that reduces pathogenic microbe levels in food to the same degree as pasteurization does and that is effective for the shelf life of the food. The equivalence of the process to pasteurization must be "demonstrated to the satisfaction of the Secretary of HHS [Health and Human Services]," according to the clause.

The provision regarding food purchased for USDA nutrition programs says that the secretary of agriculture "shall not prohibit the use of any technology to improve food safety that has been approved by the Secretary [of agriculture] or the Secretary of Health and Human Services." Bofeli said he believes the USDA is currently barred from buying irradiated food for its programs. Programs affected by this clause include those under the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the Emergency Food Assistance Act of 1973, and the Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973.

Current FDA and USDA rules say that irradiated foods must bear the label "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation" and must carry a logo called the radura—a broken circle with petals and a smaller circle inside it. Under FDA rules, however, this applies only when the whole food product has been irradiated. "If irradiated ingredients are added to foods that have not been irradiated, no special labeling is required on retail packages because it is obvious that such foods have been processed," states a report on the FDA Web site (see link below).

But USDA labeling rules differ from the FDA rules when it comes to multiple-ingredient products containing meat, such as frozen pizza. If the whole product has not been irradiated, but it contains irradiated meat, the label is supposed to make that clear, according to Krista Martin, a USDA press spokeswoman. "If there's meat in it and the meat has been irradiated, it has to be reflected on the label," she said. The USDA has permitted the irradiation of raw meat and poultry since December 1999.

In response to a congressional directive, the FDA is currently reviewing its labeling rules for irradiated foods and intends to submit a report to Congress by Sep 30, according to an FDA press spokesman, who asked not to be named. He said Congress directed the FDA to assess its requirements regarding type size and wording.

A notice in the Federal Register on Feb 17, 1999, explained that Congress, when it passed the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act of 1997, directed the FDA to publish proposed changes in the labeling rules for irradiated foods and invite public comment. The notice outlined the history of the labeling requirements and described recent comments on the rules from various groups and individuals. One person who commented was Harkin, who, the notice says, wrote to the FDA in 1998 to say that the labeling rules "foster baseless fears." He suggested the use of alternative terms such as "cold pasteurization" or "electronic pasteurization."

See also:

The Harkin provision dealing with labeling rules: Go to the Bill summary and status page for the farm bill, S. 1731. Click on "Amendments," then click "Forward" at top, scroll to item 245 at bottom and click on S.AMDT 2859." Click on link in "Text of Amendment as Submitted: CR S748-786," then click on "Page: S786" under Subtitle E. This opens a page of the Congressional Record; see the clauses under the subheading "Sec. Pasteurization."

Direct link to pdf version of Feb 13, 2002, Congressional Record page with pasteurization amendment

FDA report, "U.S. Regulatory Requirements for Irradiating Foods"

USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service information on irradiation, including labeling

Newsletter Sign-up

Get CIDRAP news and other free newsletters.

Sign up now»


Unrestricted financial support provided by

Bentson Foundation Unorthodox Philanthropy logo and text 'Leading Underwriter'3M logoGilead 
Grant support for ASP provided by


  Become an underwriter»