US food companies can seek federal approval to avoid using the word "irradiation" on labels of foods treated with the disease-killing process, and instead use language such as "cold pasteurisation," the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said yesterday.
Irradiation, which has been endorsed by the World Health Organisation, exposes food to low doses of electrons or gamma rays to destroy deadly micro-organisms such as E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella. US regulators have approved its use with raw chicken and beef as well as spices and dried seasonings.
The FDA issued guidelines explaining how companies can petition the agency to use more neutral language on the labelling of food treated with radiation.
American foodmakers have been slow to adopt the treatment for raw meat and poultry because of the cost of the equipment and worries about consumer acceptance. Some green groups and environmentalists fear using high-energy radiation in food products could have harmful side effects for consumers.
Currently, foods treated with the technology must carry labels saying either "treated with irradiation" or "treated by radiation." They must also bear a special symbol, known as the radura, which consists of green petals in a broken circle.
Some food makers that want to use radiation say consumers interpret the radura symbol and the word "irradiation" as a food safety warning. Critics say the industry is trying to use euphemisms to hide the fact that their products were irradiated.
The six-year US farm law, implemented in May, required the FDA to consider easing its labelling requirements. In its industry guidelines, the FDA said any company could apply to revise its irradiation labels as long as the new label is not false or misleading.
In its petition, a food company must submit consumer research that shows a comprehension of the proposed label. The FDA said it will either accept or deny the application within six months.
An FDA spokeswoman said the agency was expected to publish proposed changes to the current labelling requirements soon.