December 3, 1997 in Nation/World

Fda Approves Meat Irradiation But It Will Be A While Before Irradiated Beef Shows Up In Stores

Jon Van Chicago Tribune

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave meat processors permission Tuesday to use nuclear radiation on beef, but don’t look for irradiated beef in your grocer’s meat cooler any time soon.

The FDA has been considering the matter for three years, and the action came after the Clinton administration and Congress felt public pressure to assure the purity of the nation’s meat supply in the wake of last summer’s recall of 25 million pounds of tainted hamburger from the Hudson Beef Co.

Several hurdles still hamper the industry’s ability to use cobalt, cesium or linear accelerators to zap the hamburger it ships, industry experts say.

“Getting FDA approval is a positive step, but now the Department of Agriculture must adopt regulations to use irradiation at the plant level,” said Bryan Salvage, an executive with the Chicago-based Marketing & Technology Group Inc., which publishes three meat industry magazines.

“I hope the USDA doesn’t take three years to establish its guidelines,” he said. “Also lacking is the technology right now to irradiate beef in existing plants. There are questions whether its possible to irradiate meat at the line speeds the beef industry has established.”

Even though radiation treatment was approved by the FDA for pork in 1986 and for poultry in 1990, finding irradiated chickens and pork chops in supermarkets is next to impossible, although irradiation is common in a variety of nonfood products.

Tampons, cosmetics, adhesive bandages and contact lens cleaning solutions often are treated with radiation to kill all microbial contamination.

While radiation’s power to sterilize is unquestioned, consumer apprehension over its application to foods has kept the technology mostly in the background in the three decades since the FDA first approved its use to treat wheat and wheat flour.

As public concern over meat safety has grown, some large processors led by Cargill Inc., based in Minneapolis, have developed a steam pasteurization treatment to kill bacteria on beef carcasses.

Another sterilization treatment using ozone, a highly reactive form of oxygen, is being promoted by the nation’s electric utilities, which appreciate the fact ozone is produced by applying electrical current to regular oxygen.

Advocates of alternative sterilization technologies argue they are easier to incorporate into traditional meat processing practices than is irradiation, are cheaper to employ, and don’t promote consumer uneasiness.

The major pending question, say meat experts, is how consumer resistance to irradiation will play against their fears of eating contaminated meat.

“The industry has come a long way in turning around consumer attitudes,” said Salvage. “But you can bet your boots the opposition will be more vocal than ever on this issue.”

Radiation’s primary allure is as a so-called “kill step” that can be applied after beef is completely processed. That is especially appealing now that federal guidelines have zero tolerance for microbial contamination of hamburger.

“Steam and ozone are fine, but if you want to guarantee you have zero contamination to meet government guidelines, nothing beats irradiation,” said Richard Lechowich, director of the National Center for Food Safety and Technology.

“One reason you don’t see much irradiation of pork and poultry is people don’t typically eat them rare,” Lechowich said. “The idea of rare poultry of pork isn’t appealing, so any pathogens in them get cooked out. But many people, including myself, like rare beef.

“Another thing to consider is the government doesn’t have a zero tolerance policy on bacteria in pork and poultry, but it does have one for hamburger. Irradiation is the one thing we have that can meet a zero tolerance standard.”

Investors expressed their enthusiasm for irradiation by bidding up the market price of companies providing irradiation services. Sterigenics, Food Technology Service and Steris all rose Tuesday in active trading.

Thoughts and opinions on this story? Click here to comment >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email