Thursday, December 16, 1999

Irradiation of food
wins federal approval

Bullet The issue: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved irradiation of beef, pork and lamb.
Bullet Our view: The action is a major advance in the campaign to gain acceptance of irradiation.

Irradiation of food has taken a giant step with its approval by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for beef, pork and lamb. Two years ago, the Food and Drug Administration approved irradiation for red meat.

The process required approval by both USDA, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of meat, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has authority over food additives. The Agriculture Department's action should end the debate over the safety of irradiated foods.

The action has particular interest for Hawaii because irradiation of papayas and exotic fruits -- sanctioned by the federal government years ago -- has been an issue on the Big Island. Irradiation was narrowly approved in a referendum last year despite hysterical claims of opponents likening it to nuclear weapons.

Hawaii County Mayor Steve Yamashiro, an irradiation advocate, got into a dispute over the use of his campaign funds for the irradiation campaign.

This is a health issue of high importance. Irradiation kills bacteria and other organisms responsible for many consumer deaths. It is the only known method to eliminate deadly E. coli bacteria in raw meat. In addition, the Agriculture Department said, the technique can significantly reduce levels of other pathogens, including listeria, salmonella and campylobacter.

Secretary Dan Glickman, in giving final approval to the process, said,"While there is no single silver bullet to cure all food safety problems, irradiation has been shown to be both safe and effective."

Three agencies of the United Nations -- the Food and Agriculture Organization, the International Atomic Energy Agency and the World Health Organization -- have long endorsed food irradiation. Thirty-five countries use it.

Since 1992 irradiation has been approved for poultry in the United States, and is under consideration for hot dogs, lunch meats and other ready-to-eat products. USDA has waived its authority over ready-to-eat products in order to expedite the approval process for them.

Irradiated products will be required to carry labels with the international symbol of irradiation, known as a radura, and a statement that they have been treated with radiation.

The label is needed not because there is anything wrong with irradiated food but because opponents demanded it. The idea is to scare off consumers who are fearful that irradiated food is radioactive. It isn't, but it will take a lot of education to make irradiated food widely acceptable.


Judicial disclosure

Bullet The issue: A federal judiciary committee has prohibited the posting of judges' financial disclosures on the Internet.
Bullet Our view: Congressional hearings may embarrass the judiciary into moving into the modern age of open government.

THE federal judiciary has been reluctant at every opportunity to expose itself to the public. Its latest affront to public access is enough to trigger congressional hearings on how the federal courts can be dragged into the 21st century.

The U.S. Supreme Court has kept cameras and recording devices out of federal courtrooms over the past two decades while states, including Hawaii, have made legal proceedings accessible to television, radio and still photography. Federal courts can avoid public scrutiny because, as a separate branch of government, they can be shielded from sunshine laws enacted by Congress and state legislatures.

Public pressure prompted the federal judiciary to makes financial disclosures of all 1,600 judges 20 years ago, but the judges may have been comforted by the effort required of ordinary citizens to look up the information.

The arrival of the Internet apparently prompted the 15-member Judicial Conference Committee on Financial Disclosure to change the rules to prohibit "disclosure of a report to any person who has not made a written application" for the material. The change has the effect of requiring each person viewing the material on the Internet to make a specific written request.

Realizing the impracticality of such a requirement, the judges' committee has denied a request by, an Internet news organization, to post online the 1998 financial documents for all the judges, saying it "could endanger" them. The committee cited security concerns in withholding the information, even though it does not include judges' personal information, such as home addresses, Social Security numbers or home telephone numbers.

Rep. Howard Coble, R-N.C., chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees federal courts, has called for public hearings on the decision to block Internet publication of the material. While Congress has no legislative power to thwart the federal courts' move toward secrecy, it may have the ability to embarrass the judiciary to come into the sunlight.

Hearings are needed to bring attention to the federal judiciary's latest swipe at open government. That may be the only way to shatter a culture of secrecy aimed at protecting the public perception of judicial dignity.

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