Published yesterday in the Federal Register, the proposed rule aims to provide consumers with "more useful" information than the current regulation.
Irradiation works by exposing foods to ionizing radiation that kills insects, moulds and bacterium. The technology, which can kill up to 99 per cent of pathogens, is seen by the industry as a means of ensuring food safety. However public concerns over the health effects of the technology has meant global food companies have had to deal with a confusing thicket of legislation and restrictions when making and marketing their products.
The US currently requires all single-ingredient irradiated foods sold in stores to be labeled as "treated with irradiation" and to carry the 'radura' symbol.
Under the FDA's proposed labeling revisions, only those irradiated foods in which the irradiation causes a material change in the food, would bear the radura logo and the term "irradiated" or a derivative thereof, in conjunction with a description of the change in the food.
The agency said it is using the term 'material change' to refer to a change in the organoleptic, nutritional, or functional properties of a food, caused by irradiation, that the consumer could not identify at the point of purchase in the absence of appropriate labeling.
FDA is also proposing to allow a firm to petition for use of an alternate term to "irradiation" (other than "pasteurized").
In addition, FDA is proposing to permit a firm to use the term "pasteurized" in place of "irradiated", provided it notifies the agency that the irradiation process being used meets the criteria specified for use of the term "pasteurized" in the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
Comments to the proposed ruling must be received by July 3 2007.
To view the proposed rule, click here .
The US National Center for Policy Analysis estimates that if half the food at greatest risk consumed in the US were to be irradiated, food-borne illnesses would decline by 900,000 cases annually and deaths by 352. The center estimates irradiation would cost about five cents per pound for meat and poultry products.
Currently the US has roughly 50 irradiation facilities, used mainly for medical supplies and other non-food items. According to a report published last year by Food & Water Watch, food irradiation is unpopular among consumers in the country, in part because of federal labeling rules.
"A string of failures makes it clear there is little demand for irradiated food in the US," the organization reported. "As a result of low consumer demand, several irradiation companies have struggled."
The 2004 bankruptcy of San Diego-based SureBeam was the most notable failure, said the report. The bankruptcy resulted in the virtual end of irradiated meat sales and the idling of three irradiators, in Sioux City, Iowa, and near Chicago and Los Angeles.
However, in the fall of 2006, food irradiation received renewed media attention in the US following the E coli outbreak in spinach from California. As a publicity stunt, the chief executive of one firm using irradiation - Sadex - ate spinach intentionally contaminated with E coli and then irradiated.
Sadex is among several companies that have claimed future outbreaks could be controlled by using irradiation. The FDA has only approved irradiation for fruits and vegetables for plant pests, and not for killing pathogen contamination.
In August 2005, the FDA legalized the irradiation of mollusc and shellfish, including oysters, clams and mussels.
Still pending before the FDA are industry requests to irradiated crustacean shellfish - including shrimp, crabs and lobsters - and ready-to-eat foods, such as deli meats, pre-bagged salads, frozen meals and baby food.