Meat irradiation gets green light, approval process streamlined

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Late last year, the USDA-FSIS announced it was giving the eagerly anticipated go-ahead for food industries to begin using ionizing radiation (irradiation) to kill harmful bacteria on refrigerated or frozen raw meat and meat products.

In a related action, the agency said it is also amending federal meat and poultry product inspection regulations to end the requirement that food additives be approved separately by the USDA and FDA. Under the old system, once the FDA approves a food additive, the USDA must conduct separate rule-making before it can be approved for use in meat or poultry.

The announcements, made Dec 14, 1999 and appearing in the Dec 23 Federal Register, come two years after the FDA ruled that irradiation, which is defined as a food additive, is safe for meat food products.

The irradiation guidelines for meat become effective Feb 22.

Food irradiation has been shown to eliminate Escherichia coli O157:H7 and substantially reduce Listeria, Salmonella, and Campylobacter on raw meat. The shelf life of irradiated food is also extended.

The forms of radiant energy vary, the predominant one used by industry being ionizing radiation, resulting from cobalt-60, cesium-137, X-ray machines, or electron accelerators that penetrate deep into food, killing insects and microorganisms without greatly raising the temperature of the food.

Several countries practice food irradiation, and the AVMA, American Medical Association, World Health Organization, and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization have endorsed its use.

The AVMA's position supporting the use of ionizing pasteurization on meat and poultry is printed on page 86 of the 2000 AVMA Membership Directory & Resource Manual.

In 1997 the World Health Organization said food irradiation "is the most thoroughly investigated food processing technology."

Until the recent USDA ruling, packaged poultry could be irradiated in the United States, but the technology was not widely used. The FSIS is revising those regulations so they will be as consistent as possible with the new meat guidelines. This entails allowing poultry establishments to determine what degree of irradiation within the maximum established by the regulations and consequent reduction of pathogens is appropriate within their HACCP systems.

raw meat Advocates of food irradiation in the United States have called for additional expanded usage beyond raw and frozen meat and poultry. At an April 1999 meeting of the Food Safety Consortium in Washington, DC, members called on the USDA and FDA to approve irradiation for precooked meats and luncheon meats (see June 15, 1999 JAVMA, page 1758).

The USDA is requiring that irradiated meat and meat products bear the radura international symbol for irradiation and a statement that the product was treated by irradiation. Irradiated meat used as an ingredient in other products also must be labeled. For unpackaged meat products that do not have labels, the statement and logo must be displayed at the point of sale to consumers. These labeling requirements, however, will not apply to products purchased through food service operations, such as restaurants.

There is concern that the public will shy away from foods treated with ionizing radiation, believing them to be tainted and unsafe. The Food Safety Consortium and numerous industry groups have called on the FSIS to promote irradiation and educate the public of its benefits.

Although the FSIS rule was received with a great deal of support, there is also a sense of frustration at the government agencies' lack of timeliness. The National Food Processors Association said it was "gratified" about the new policy "but it has been a long time in coming." The association, which represents the food processing industry on issues including scientific and public policy matters involving food safety, said the safety of food irradiation has been extensively researched worldwide.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association stated the US beef industry has been waiting nearly two years for the USDA to finalize the rule.

Acknowledging the "delays" in the rule-making process, the FSIS amended the Federal Meat Inspection Act and the Poultry Products Inspection Act. The amendment is intended to improve the efficiency of the procedures used by FSIS and the FDA for reviewing and listing or approving the use of food ingredients and sources of radiation in the production of meat and poultry products.

The action, according to the agency, will eliminate the need for separate FSIS rule-making actions. Except in limited circumstances, the FDA will list in its regulations food ingredients and sources of radiation that are safe for use in the production of meat and poultry products. Requests for approval to use food ingredients and sources of radiation not currently permitted in the production of meat and poultry products will have to be submitted to the FDA.

The new rule-making policy became active Jan 24.