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USDA lifts ban on sale of irradiated meat to public schools.

USDA lifted its prohibition on irradiated ground beef in the national school lunch program May 30, giving local school districts the option of ordering meat decontaminated with gamma rays, X-rays or electrons as early as next January. The department issued regulations allowing the purchase of irradiated ground beef over the objections of several consumer groups that have voiced concerns about the technology's safety for the nation's school lunch program.

"While there is not a lot of evidence that irradiation harms anybody, neither has there been any group of people who has consumed irradiated food over a long period of time," said Arthur Jaeger, associate director of the Consumer Federation of America.

Proponents of the irradiation, including the federal government and meat industry representatives, call irradiation a valuable process for killing disease-causing microbes such as salmonella and E. coli. They say 40 years of testing have established its safety. The Food and Drug Administration approved the process in 1997, and two years later the USDA approved the sale of irradiated meat in grocery stores. "Protecting the public from food-borne illness is a priority," said Elsa Murano, the USDA's undersecretary for food safety. "Irradiation technology is another tool to enhance food safety."

Congress inserted a provision into last year's farm bill requiring the USDA to make irradiated meat available to local districts through the school lunch program. That provision could be a boon to the industry: Irradiated meat accounts for less than 5 percent of overall meat sales, according to industry estimates.

In issuing its regulations, USDA officials said they didn't know how much irradiated ground beef the agency would end up ordering from meat companies. Irradiated ground beef costs as much as 16 percent more than regular ground meat, leading some analysts to believe that, coupled with the controversy surrounding the process, there will be little incentive for school systems to order the product.

Local school districts will have the final say over whether they order either irradiated or nonirradiated beef. USDA officials said they would provide information packages about the safety of irradiated beef to help guide local districts in their decisions.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) released a letter he wrote to Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman, warning that many parents have concerns about the "possible health effects" of eating irradiated meat. "The scientific debate over the safety of meat irradiation is far from conclusive," Leahy wrote, citing European and other studies linking the process to elevated cancer rates. "It also remains uncertain how these health effects could be compounded in the bodies of developing children."
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Comment:USDA lifts ban on sale of irradiated meat to public schools.
Publication:Food & Drink Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 9, 2003
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