FDA now says 'irradiation' disclosure on food labels doesn't have to be a 'warning label.' Still, the food industry hopes for more concessions from the Food Safety & Inspection Service.
By Stephen Barlas, Contributing Editor
The Food and Drug Administration's recent action saying irradiation labels on food need not be unusually conspicuous was nothing more than an appetizer before the U.S. Department of Agriculture serves up the main course-a proposed rule-that is likely to set off a political food fight. It is the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) that has the final word on meat and poultry packaging including how irradiation labels are worded. A proposed rule from the FSIS setting the parameters for irradiation of red meat including any packaging restrictions or requirements was due out at press time. Many major food industry associations want the FSIS to do away entirely with the requirement for irradiation disclosure including any need to use a radura logo. The FDA's final rule on August 17 was a side dish of sorts. It said that companies which irradiate food do not have to disclose that fact on the food label any more prominently than the identity of the ingredients in the food. There was nothing surprising about that edict. It had been required under a provision included in the FDA Modernization Act (FDAMA) that jumbo catch-all piece of legislation Congress passed in the fall of 1997. FDAMA contained a provision saying the FDA could not require "a separate radiation disclosure statement that is more prominent than the declaration of ingredients..." Irradiation of poultry and fruits is already legal. Current FDA rules require use of the radura logo and a statement of "Treated by irradiation" or "Treated with radiation." Those words have to be "prominent and conspicuous" although the FDA does not specify type size. Warning statement? Brian Folkerts vice president of government affairs for the National Food Processors Assn. (NFPA) says many companies had interpreted that rule to mean the radiation language on the label had to read like a "warning statement" although the FDA never used that terminology. In saying the radiation language can be the same size as the ingredients listed on the label the FDA eliminates any misunderstanding that may have caused food companies to use larger more forbidding type sizes on radiation statements. "This regulatory reform will provide important consumer benefits by revising labeling requirements so that irradiation labeling no longer resembles 'warning labels'" says Kelly Johnston executive vice president at the NFPA. "FDA should now take the next step and determine whether special labeling requirements such as 'radiation' disclosures are scientifically or legally justified." Actually that is a call for USDA's FSIS. The FSIS has been working on a proposed rule about the use of irradiation on red meat ever since the FDA said in December 1997 that radiation could be used to kill pathogens in red meat. No plan no criticism The FSIS's proposed rule is apparently sitting at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) waiting for clearance. Carol Thomas an FSIS spokeswoman says the proposed rule was expected to come out by this fall. But she did not sound too sure of that prediction. Earlier FSIS officials had predicted a proposed rule by February 1998. But that never happened. FSIS is undoubtedly trying to ensure that its proposed rule does not come under heavy fire from the NFPA and other industry groups such as the American Meat Institute. The NFPA submitted a petition to FSIS in February 1998 arguing that food processors should not have to make any radiation disclosure at all. "If many consumers in fact remain apprehensive about the safety of irradiated foods then the government's insistence that such foods be so labeled could well be seen as providing authoritative support for these seriously misguided fears" the petition said. The NFPA would also like use of the radura logo to be an option not a mandate. The NFPA's "no-disclosure-necessary" stance is not necessarily shared by another leading trade association the Grocery Manufacturers Assn. (GMA). "If consumers want to know that food is irradiated we don't have a problem with labeling for that" says Susan Stout senior director for federal affairs at the GMA. In the end it may not matter all that much that the FSIS won't have a final red meat irradiation rule out until at least well into 1999 if then. That is because there are few food packaging materials approved that could be used for hamburger or anything else irradiated with either gamma rays or electron beams. How to package? "The availability of the right packaging is critical" says George Dietz senior vice president of Steris/Isomedix Services (Whippany NJ) a company that irradiates fruit. The only currently approved FDA packaging that could be used for irradiating meat is wax-coated paperboard cartons into which hamburger patties would be placed separated by parchment-type paper. But neither vacuum nor modified atmosphere packages are approved for irradiated foods. Several packaging films are approved for use with gamma radiation of poultry. They include polyethylene polyvinylidene chloride nylon 6 and polyester film. But as Dietz points out electron beam irradiation "is an easier sell to some folks" since no radioisotopes are used. However very few packages have been approved by the FDA for electron beam irradiation. Some meat packers are about to submit a "white paper" to the FDA arguing that the agency should allow packaging already approved for gamma radiation to be also approved for use with electron beam irradiation. That would be a first step in convincing some meat packers to at least try irradiation once the FSIS rule becomes final. Those companies are working under the aegis of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology which is funded in part by the FDA. The center is housed at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. George Sadler a research professor at IIT is the author of the white paper. He hopes that rigid packaging which has already been approved for gamma-irradiation will receive FDA approval for electron beam irradiation as well. However he acknowledges that those materials "can make a not-so-good-but-suitable" package for electron beam-irradiated foods. If the FDA agrees then the Task Force on Irradiated Packaging Materials will ask the FDA to approve a second list of "more modern" materials such as ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) copolymers for irradiation by electron beam.