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US State Department Approves Raw Meat Irradiation

The US Department of Agriculture yesterday approved food processors irradiating raw beef, pork and lamb. The agency is also being asked to approve irradiation of ready-to-eat products such as hot dogs and luncheon meats. John Howard reports.

In a move likely to have international implications because of food globalisation, the USDA has allowed processors to irradiate the food ostensibly to eliminate deadly bacteria and other organisms. The products will have to carry lables informing shoppers of the treatment.

"While there is no silver bullet to cure all food safety problems, irradiation has been shown to be both safe and effective," US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said.

Several companies, including ConAgra Inc, one of the largest meatpackers in the US, have said they plan to use irradiation. But processors also say the government needs to undertake a public education campaign to convince consumers that irradiation is safe.

Protesters who attended the WTO talks in Seattle are furious, saying it is not the place of the taxpayer to have to pay for nuclear irradiation education programmes further subsidising food company profits.

" The WTO rules can even bring sanctions against a country denying access to irradiated food because if they restricted it, that could be classed as a policy restriction on international trade," said Nigel Clarice of the Los Angeles-based Food Action Group.

"The people of Ukraine and Belarus are still feeling the consequences of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster with much of their land still irradiated and a sharp increase in certain illnesses, yet the USDA approves food irradiation. It's outrageous," he said.

Irradiation of food had to be approved by both the USDA, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over food additives. The FDA approved irradiation in 1997.

"Initially, irradiated meat is likely to be the most popular in hospitals and nursing homes because of the danger E. coli bacteria poses to patients with weakened immune systems," said Carol Foreman of the Consumer Federation of America.

" I don't expect you're going to get it for sale at McDonald's any time soon. It takes a while to build the facilities," she said.

But health activists are asking if patients are old or sick, how will they be told or give their consent to being served the irradiated food in they don't buy it or see any warning label on the packaging?

"If consumers embrace the product, the industry is in the business of meeting consumer demand and we will respond with more irradiated products," said Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute.

Tim Willard, a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, said the USDA decision was "long overdue."

ends

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