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Going Backwards: Bill Defines Irradiated Meat as 'Pasteurized'
5 March 2002
If a last-minute provision in the Senate farm bill becomes law, irradiated hamburger could become known by a more appealing name: pasteurized beef.
Senator Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who heads the Senate Agriculture Committee, said today that he had inserted the provision in an effort to "more clearly define pasteurization," the process by which disease-producing bacteria have long been destroyed in some foods through heating.
The Harkin change would define irradiation as a kind of pasteurization. It has been sought for several years by the growing irradiated-food industry, which argues that irradiation is a "cold pasteurization" and deserves to be referred to as such.
But neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the Agriculture Department has yet to agree that meat treated by radiation, a process approved by the government two years ago, should qualify as pasteurized. Food safety advocates argue that the legislative provision is an effort to avoid F.D.A. regulatory procedures that would ordinarily be needed in order to define irradiation as a form of pasteurization for labeling purposes. Both the industry and Mr. Harkin deny any such end run.
Mr. Harkin's home state is also home, in Sioux City, to the main plant of the SureBeam Corporation, the No. 1 irradiator of ground beef sold in the United States. He inserted the provision almost three weeks ago, on the last day of Senate debate on the farm bill. The provision was later discovered by the public-interest lobby Public Citizen.
In another late change, Mr. Harkin also inserted a clause that would forbid the agriculture secretary to keep irradiated food out of the school lunch program or any other federal nutrition program.
Only the Senate version of the bill includes those provisions. The legislation is now in a House-Senate conference, and it is uncertain whether the clauses will survive.
The two sides in the food safety debate agree that when consumers see "irradiation" on a label, they often view it as a warning that the product has undergone a potentially dangerous process.
Irradiation is something the consumer associates with "wartime and bombs and bad things," said Diane Toops, food and trend editor of Food Processing, a trade magazine that views irradiation favorably. And since Sept. 11, the process has become associated with anthrax as well, because irradiation is now used to kill germs in the postal system.
While Mr. Harkin played down the effect of his last-minute changes, consumer advocates said the provision on irradiation's definition could allow irradiated food to be labeled "pasteurized" without F.D.A. action. Under current regulations, the label on irradiated meat must instead state that it has been "treated by irradiation" and must be marked with the symbol for irradiation, called a radura.
"It would be terrible, just horrible, misleading the public about what industry is doing to its food," said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen.
Wil Williams, spokesman for the SureBeam Corporation, said that Senator Harkin was simply "coming up with one standard definition" and that SureBeam had no intention of skirting the regulatory process.
"Irradiation is pasteurization partial sterilization to eliminate pathogens," Mr. Williams said. "All the farm bill does is come up with a standard everyone can use."
Since irradiation was approved by the government two years ago, he said, it has been used to remove germs from millions of pounds of beef.
A spokesman for Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman had no comment on the Harkin provisions.