The FDA announced today that the Agency may relax rules on labeling irradiated foods, and even suggested some irradiated products could be labeled as "pasteurized, " "cold-pasteurized," or other alternative terms than "irradiated." FDA's proposal (PDF) admits that in focus groups and polls, consumers were not buying the change in terminology, stating "Research indicates that many consumers regard substitute terms for irradiation to be misleading." Gee, I wonder why.
According to a CNN report, the proposed rule would require companies to label irradiated food only when the radiation treatment causes a 'material change' to the product. Examples include changes to the taste, texture, smell or shelf life of a food. The Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch released a report last year, Food Irradiation: A Gross Failure (PDF), exploring these very changes in irradiated food, finding that "published research on irradiated foods repeatedly finds that they smell rotton, metalic, bloody, burnt, grassy and generally off. The taste was described as like sulfer, singed hair, burnt feathers, burnt oil and rancid fat. " Mmmmm. Yum. That sounds pretty label-worthy to me.
Besides the obvious yuck factor, serious questions linger as to whether this food is safe. CFS's report also cites several scientific studies that show irradiating foods can form volatile toxic chemicals, such as benzene and toulene; causes stunted growth in lab animals fed irradiated foods; and a startling 2001 study that linked colon tumor promotion in lab rats to new chemical compounds that are found only in irradiated foods, known as 2-alkylcyclobutanones (2-ACBs).
But FDA doesn't want to talk about those changes. That might confuse us or give rise to what the agency terms "inappropriate consumer anxiety." Though FDA repeatedly states in the proposal that consumers need to be given information in order to make informed purchasing decisions, FDA goes on to assert that "If the removal of explicit language indicating that a food has been irradiated causes people to buy irradiated products that they previously avoided, and if these products have lower prices or higher quality, then some consumers will benefit from the removal of information." Benefit from a lack of information we relied on to choose what we eat and feed to our families? Now I'm confused.
It seems pretty obvious who really benefits from a lack of labeling. Using recent food-contamination scandals as a springboard, irradiation has been touted as the solution to food-borne illness in everything from spinach to deli meats. But a good, hard look at the systemic food and agricultural problems that cause these tragic outbreaks in the first place has yet to be undertaken by government agencies. Instead they continue to approve risky band-aid solutions that are likely to cause more problems than they will ever fix, and then keep consumers in the dark about their use.