- July 22 - The two federal agencies responsible for food regulation may have
intentionally withheld from lawmakers critical consumer research that is compellingly
contrary to several provisions in the recently passed farm bill about the labeling
of irradiated food, Public Citizen has learned.
On May 8, Congress passed the farm bill, which included several industry provisions
that weakened the labeling of irradiated food and opened the door for manufacturers
to mislabel it as "pasteurized." Yet research commissioned by the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) –
and withheld from lawmakers while they were crafting the bill – shows that
consumers do not want irradiated food termed "pasteurized."
"It is outrageous that government agencies responsible for public health
and the safety of the food supply would withhold information so relevant to a
law before it was passed," said Wenonah Hauter, director of Public Citizen’s
Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program. "This is a glaring omission
at best and deceptive at worse. We suspect that the agencies held onto the research
because they didn’t like the results. The lawmakers may not have put these
harmful provisions in the law had they seen this research."
The provisions were slipped into the bill as a "technical amendment"
late in the process by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who took $192,138 in agribusiness
PAC contributions in the last two election cycles (1999-2000 and 2001-2002).
Since 2001, the USDA and the FDA have each commissioned research into consumers’
opinions on labeling. In the FY 2002 Agriculture-FDA Appropriations bill, Congress
instructed the FDA to report by Feb. 1, 2002, the findings from its consumer focus
groups and how the agency planned to implement the findings. Although the FDA
conducted the research in 2001, it didn’t provide Congress with the information
until last Thursday, July 18, more than five months after the original deadline.
The FDA research involved six focus groups composed of seven to 10 consumers
each. They unanimously rejected "pasteurization" as a replacement for
"irradiation," using phrases such as "sneaky," "deceptive,"
and "trying to fool us" to describe such an attempt to change terminology.
"Most of the participants viewed alternate terms such as ‘cold pasteurization’
and ‘electronic pasteurization’ as misleading," the report said.
"Everyone agreed that irradiated foods should be labeled honestly. They indicated
that the current FDA-required statement is a straightforward way for labeling
Additionally, Public Citizen recently obtained portions of the USDA’s
report on consumer attitudes on labeling, after requesting information about the
focus group results under the Freedom of Information Act in early April. The report,
which was compiled by an outside consulting firm, is dated March 22, 2002, yet
the USDA apparently has never released the report to the public or lawmakers (a
congressional source involved in the writing of the farm bill said she never knew
of it). The report found that consumers "consider it misleading to label
irradiated meat and poultry products as ‘pasteurized.’ "
The focus groups rejected the euphemism because they "consider irradiation
and pasteurization to be two different processes," the report said. The USDA
consumer research was conducted in six focus group sessions, composed of household
grocery shoppers and "food preparers." Between the FDA and USDA focus
groups, consumers were queried in six different cities representing all regions
of the country.
"When you are creating rules that directly affect consumers, it’s
vital that consumers be heard," said Hauter. "We find it hard to believe
that USDA didn’t know Congress was debating the very issue their new report
addressed – it was even in The New York Times. Why would these agencies
bother to ask consumers what they think if they aren’t going to inform decision-makers
about the results?"
"When government agencies consistently find that consumers reject the
use of ‘pasteurization’ to describe irradiation, government policies
should reflect that," said Tony Corbo, legislative representative for Public
Citizen. "Consumers have repeatedly denounced this terminology, and for the
government to ignore its own research is utter hypocrisy.
"What’s even more alarming about USDA’s failure to publicize
this research is how far they’ve gone to keep it from getting out,"
Corbo added. "At a June 5 meeting of the USDA’s Advisory Committee
on Meat and Poultry Inspection, Undersecretary for Food Safety Elsa Murano denied
that this research had ever been conducted. Meanwhile the report had been done
Irradiation uses gamma rays, X-rays or accelerated electrons that alter the
molecular structure of food in an attempt to kill pathogens and insects. The process
destroys nutrients, may change the taste, smell and appearance of food, and produces
new chemical compounds, some of which have been found to promote cancer and cause
genetic and cellular damage in rats and human cells. from pasteurization, which
uses rapid heating and cooling to partially sterilize liquid products, namely