July 22, 2002
Government Agencies Withheld Relevant Research From Congress During Farm Bill Debate
Research Confirms That Consumers Reject "Pasteurization" Label for Irradiated Food
WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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 irradiated foods."
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 since March."
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. Irradiation is a distinct process that is very different from pasteurization, which uses rapid heating and cooling to partially sterilize liquid products, namely milk.
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Noel F. Petrie
Critical Mass Energy and Environment Program