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Radiation OKd for Produce Pest Control

Associated Press

The government on Tuesday approved the use of low-level radiation to kill insects on fresh fruits and vegetables, but said consumers must be told the process was used.

Health and Human Services Secretary Otis R. Bowen said he had signed final regulations authorizing the expanded use of radiation, which he called “a new technology that can produce benefits to consumers.”

He said irradiation could reduce the use of pesticides and inhibit maturation and spoilage, thus extending shelf life and possibly making some foods more available or less expensive.

The Food and Drug Administration said years of research have shown that irradiation does not make food radioactive, does not significantly change nutritional values and causes no changes beyond those that might occur through cooking, freezing or canning.

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“Some consumers may prefer one taste to another, but the differences do not affect safety,” the FDA said.

Some consumer groups, however, say the safety of irradiated food remains an open question.

Bowen urged the FDA and the food processing industry to study further uses of radiation on food.

“The health benefits could be substantial if this process, at higher radiation levels, can be safely used for microbial control,” he said.

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The regulation takes effect upon publication in the Federal Register, expected today or Thursday, the FDA said.

Equal to 3 Million X-Rays

The radiation allowed on fresh fruits and vegetables would be up to 1 kiloGray, or 100,000 rads. That is the equivalent of more than 3 million chest X-rays, but is considered low by radiation standards.

At least 100 times more radiation would be needed to adequately kill bacteria and fungi, the FDA said, and at least 1,000 times more would be needed to sterilize the vegetables.

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“It’s a very conservative proposal,” said FDA spokesman James Greene. “It allows just low-level use for a specific purpose.”

In approving the fruit and vegetable radiation use, Bowen also approved an increase in the amount of radiation, from 10 kiloGray to 30 kiloGray, that can be used on dried herbs and spices.

Bowen’s predecessor, Margaret M. Heckler, tentatively approved the same regulation before leaving office last December. But, to expand consumer knowledge of the process, Bowen made an important change in Heckler’s proposal.

Heckler would have required irradiated food to carry a label describing them as “picowaved,” a term critics said was invented and actually concealed the use of radiation.

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Under Bowen’s final regulation, the word “picowave” has disappeared. Irradiated food must be labeled as “treated with radiation.” The regulation encourages elaboration, such as “treated with radiation instead of pesticide chemicals to control insect infestation.”

Bowen said the use of the phrase was “in no way a warning, but merely informational . . . “

Ellen Green of the Coalition for Food Irradiation, an industry group, said she expects food processors to move into the field gradually and with extensive efforts to educate the public on the safety of food irradiation.

“Consumers initially fear the terms radiation or irradiation, not realizing that they are totally unlike nuclear radiation,” she said.

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