WASHINGTON — A food industry coalition asked the U.S. government Monday to approve irradiation of ready-to-eat meats, fruits and vegetables, expanding the use of a technology it contends could improve food safety by killing dangerous germs.
Twenty-eight groups petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to allow irradiation, which has already been approved for raw ground beef, for foods such as hot dogs and luncheon meats, fresh fruits and vegetables and juices. Such processed food makes up about 37% of the $750 billion worth of food Americans consume each year.
The Food Irradiation Coalition, which includes the National Food Processors Assn. and the American Meat Institute, said irradiation would give food processors another important tool to help make foods safer.
"Irradiation is an effective and safe technique," said Rhona Applebaum of the food processors group. "We support its use in further enhancing the safety of our food supply."
Irradiation exposes foods to tiny amounts of electron beams or gamma rays that kill deadly bacteria. Originally developed to protect food for U.S. astronauts, irradiation can kill germs such as E. coli, a bacterium that sickens an estimated 20,000 Americans each year, and listeria monocytogenes, which earlier this year killed 21 people who ate contaminated hot dogs made by Sara Lee Corp.
Health and consumer groups have reluctantly supported irradiation as a way to protect children, the elderly and others with weak immune systems.
The FDA, which has pledged to make food safety a priority, has 180 days to respond to the petition. A spokeswoman said Monday that the agency had not yet received the petition and therefore could not comment.
Irradiation is used on a small portion of U.S. foods, mostly spices and some poultry products. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not yet finalized rules that would allow irradiation of raw ground beef even though the FDA has approved it.
Some groups, however, have raised questions about worker safety and said they would prefer that the industry focus on improving processing conditions to further reduce contamination.
Now, processors use a wide variety of procedures such as refrigeration and pasteurization to prevent contamination and keep foods fresh.