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WASHINGTON (AP) — Some of the 28 million children in the national school lunch program may find irradiated hamburger on their plates as early as next year.

The Agriculture Department is seeking suppliers to furnish ground meat zapped by bacteria-killing gamma rays or electricity.

Despite apprehension among some people about the technology, the department issued specifications Thursday to schools notifying them of the coming availability and said it will seek bids from potential suppliers by January.

"When compared with conventional beef, "the product that's irradiated is going to be safer, no question," said Elsa Murano, the department's assistant secretary in charge of food safety.

Congress ordered the department last year to start accepting irradiation as a method of sanitizing meat for the school lunch program. Irradiated meat has been allowed in grocery stores since 1999, when the Agriculture Department concluded the benefits — preventing food poisoning — outweighed any risk of side effects.

Eric Bost, head of the department's Food and Nutrition Service, which overseas the school lunch program, said he doesn't know yet how much irradiated hamburger the government will purchase.

An estimated 132 million pounds of ground beef, at a price of $1.25 per pound, was provided to schools in the lunch program last year. Irradiated hamburger costs up to 20 cents more per pound.

"Each school district will have the option to choose between irradiated and non-irradiated ground beef products and will decide how to notify parents and students if they choose to offer them," Bost said.

So far, only one local school system — Point Arena, Calif., with 500 students — has outright rejected using irradiated meat in its lunch program, according to Public Citizen, a group that contends researchers have yet to prove the meat won't cause cancer.

"We're very fearful of what will happen when we go through a whole generation of kids that have been consuming this stuff," said Tony Corbo, a spokesman for the group. "They're going to use the kids as an experiment."

Research shows that most of the radiation passes through without being absorbed. The small amount that does remain kills the bacteria.

Studies on laboratory animals "for over the last 30 to 40 years, not only in the United States but worldwide, have shown there is no health effect that is detrimental to people," Murano said.

The Agriculture Department has begun an information campaign on irradiated meat after research indicated consumers have been slow to accept it partly because they have not been told of benefits. The department plans to send out brochures to schools for distribution to parents.

Irradiated meat carries a radura symbol, resembling a flower in the middle of a circle. Packages also carry a message explaining to consumers that the meat has been treated with irradiation.

Bost said the department will encourage school systems to label irradiated meat in lunch lines and notify parents that it is being served, but added that the government cannot require either.

Copyright © 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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