Researchers testing new irradiation x-ray technology

by Bryan Salvage
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EAST LANSING, MICH. – Michigan State University researchers are testing new low-dose irradiation x-ray technology that can reduce pathogens by 99,999% in foods including ground beef, according to Environmental Health News.

Rayfresh Foods Inc., Ann Arbor, Mich., provided M.S.U. with an x-ray prototype machine to use in its irradiation experiments. Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7 are two of the pathogens being targeted. The x-ray machine uses a higher dose of irradiation than medical x-ray imaging and less than gamma-ray and electron-beam irradiation. Researchers have determined so far x-rays can kill bacterial pathogens on ground beef, leafy greens and nuts. Preliminary tests show no major quality problems.

One major advantage to x-ray irradiation is its low energy requires less protective shielding, which results in more compact equipment that can be installed in the processing plants instead of specially-built facilities. X-ray irradiation, however, can only process small quantities of food at a time, such as single servings.

Rayfresh reportedly has landed its first contract to build an x-ray machine to treat ground beef for Omaha Steaks. Although she couldn’t get into specifics about the equipment claim or M.S.U.’s research, Beth Weiss, corporate communications director for Omaha Steaks, told MEATPOULTRY.com: "This is a project that we have been working on with scientists from Michigan State University for well over a year and there have been many delays as they worked to fine-tune the details of the prototype equipment. Omaha Steaks irradiates all of [its] ground beef product [burgers and bulk ground beef] and we have done so since the fall of 2000. We continue to use outside vendors to do the irradiation process, and our goal is to ultimately bring that process in-house."

Omaha Steaks ground-beef sales have doubled since 2000 when it introduced irradiated ground beef, Ronald Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council and editor of The Food Irradiation Update e-newsletter, told MEATPOULTRY.com. "While some may question whether the sales increase is because of irradiation, I contend that irradiation has not had an adverse impact on acceptance," he added.

The Schwan Food Co., Marshall, Minn., continues to add irradiated beef items including quarter-pound patties, Black Angus Steak Burger, ground beef in half pound (bulk) packages and a totally new item called Breakfast Steaks, Mr. Eustice said. "All non-pre-cooked items at Schwan’s are irradiated and have been since 2000."

Will food irradiation ever be adopted by the meat industry on a wide-scale basis? Mr. Eustice answered: "Absolutely. The incidence of samples positive to E. coli O157:H7 continues to rise. F.S.I.S. testing shows that in 2008 the percent of positive samples nearly doubled and stood at 0.47% compared to 0.24% in 2007. The incidence of positives has risen every year for the past four years.

"We are seeing new strains of non-O157:H7 E. coli plus a rising incidence of Salmonella," he added. "The widely publicized Listeria outbreak in Canada is another tragedy. It is likely that most, if not all, of these outbreaks could have been prevented or significantly reduced with irradiation."

He believes pathogens are permeating the environment. "Many new vectors are appearing," Mr. Eustice continued. "We need another tool to complement existing technologies."

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