Production of irradiated beef is beginning, and with it comes the issue of customer acceptance. Experts such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Dr. George Pauli say that the process may have significant health benefits in providing a safe food product, and that "there is no factual evidence for risk."
This much is known: Irradiation can reduce or eliminate harmful pathogens such as salmonella, E. coli 0157:H7, and Campylobacter, three major causes of food-borne illness. Irradiating prepared ready-to-eat meats such as hot dogs and deli meats could eliminate the risk of listeria from foods, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Irradiation could also eliminate parasites like cyclospora and bacteria such as shigella and salmonella from fresh produce. Irradiation of animal feeds could prevent the spread of salmonella and other pathogens to livestock through their food.
Irradiation may be done with gamma rays, electron beams, and X-rays. According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, beef products will most likely be irradiated using an electron beam system similar to the X-ray systems used for security purposes.
"I want the consumer to understand that at no time does the product become radioactive," said Ruth Weisheit, public affairs specialist of the Brunswick, O., office of the Food and Drug Administration. (The FDA approves the source of irradiation and the level of radiation.)
Irradiated meat and poultry products sold at retail must bear the international radura symbol in conjunction with a statement such as "Treated with radiation" or "Treated by irradiation."
"The finished product in the supermarket must be labeled," said Ms. Weisheit. "Non-packaged products (such as bananas or mangoes) must have the symbol in the area, such as the produce bin. It must have both the words and the symbol."
While scientists draw a parallel between pasteurization and food irradiation, some consumer groups say that irradiation destroys important vitamins and enzymes.
But Ms. Weisheit notes that it does not kill vitamins or enzymes any more than any other form of food preservation. "We have approved irradiation for a number of years for a number of products, and it has not been used," she said.
Irradiated meat can be recontaminated if it is not properly handled, she added. However, irradiation provides an extra margin of safety. It gives manufacturers and processors an additional tool to effectively ensure the safety of meats, fruits, and vegetables for consumers, but it is not a substitute for proper food-handling practices, according to the Food Technology Service, an irradiation facility in Florida using gamma radiation on seasoning and spices, consumer products, and packaging materials.
Even though irradiation has been approved for raw meat, producers and processors must now determine if they want to use that method. That means it will take time for the product to reach supermarket refrigerated cases. When it does, look for the labeling.
Under the United States Department of Agriculture's labeling requirements, meat served in restaurants and cafeterias will not have to be labeled. The product could also end up in hospitals and nursing homes, according to the FDA's Dr. Pauli. "Consumers have seen examples of people getting sick [from tainted food]. People will take that into account when they evaluate the benefits of irradiation."
In 1999, seafood processors requested to be allowed to irradiate molluscan shellfish, such as oysters, clams, and mussels. Permission has not yet been granted. These shellfish are often eaten raw, and may contain strains of vibrio bacteria that are normally present in the water in which the shellfish grow.
As long as taste is not affected, irradiation may well be the next step in food safety practices.
But the bottom line in consumer acceptance may be the price differential, whether it is big or small. To date, irradiated products have cost slightly more.
Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.