Irradiation's future potential

by Keith Nunes
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Meat and poultry irradiation in the U.S. may not be as active as it was earlier this decade when electron-beam treatment of ground beef began moving from the East Coast westward thanks to the technology of the now defunct SureBeam Corp., but food irradiation in the U.S. nevertheless continues at a healthy pace.

“Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s irradiate 100% of their raw ground beef items and have done so since 2000,” says Ronald Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council and a long-time advocate of food irradiation. “Both companies have seen beef sales rise, however, the increase is not necessarily due to irradiation. But one can conclude that the fact that they sell irradiated product has not been a negative.”

In fact, Omaha Steaks has seen its ground-beef sales double in recent years, Eustice said.

“Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., proudly offers irradiated fresh-ground beef in chubs and has done so for many years,” he added. “They position irradiated ground beef as a value-added product.”

The Wegmans Web site describes irradiated ground beef as follows – A Rare Opportunity: The technology that irradiates this product uses electron-beam energy to reduce harmful bacteria like E. coli. Now juicy, great-tasting burgers can be yours! Remember, your satisfaction is always guaranteed with Wegmans brand products. Signed: The Wegmans Family.”

Colorado Boxed Beef, Auburndale, Fla., also offers irradiated frozen patties through Publix in the Southeastern US. As for the availability of treated ground beef at retail outlets in the U.S., Eustice said, “Omaha Steaks has about 100 retail stores in 25 states; Wegmans is at about 85 stores in New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and New Jersey; and Publix has stores in the Southeast.” In the foodservice segment, Eustice said he’s unaware of any operator serving irradiated ground beef.

Perception is still reality and the consensus in the U.S. meat industry regarding the use of e-beam, gamma or x-ray technology as a food-safety measure remains lukewarm at best. “Generally, the mood can be described as cautious,” Eustice says. “Beef-industry research is focused on pre-harvest interventions, such as vaccines, antimicrobial sprays and bacteriophage, etc. None of these interventions is as effective as irradiation, which at doses commonly used will reduce pathogenic bacteria such as E. coli by 5 logs [99.999%].”

Last year, the American Meat Institute petitioned for the use of carcass irradiation as a food-safety surface treatment. “Several other petitions are also languishing in government bureaucracy, including the “Ready to Eat” foods petition from the Grocery Manufacturers of America,” Eustice said.

During its heyday, SureBeam was driving the U.S. food irradiation movement and was making great headway. “Today, Food Technology Services Inc., Mulberry, Fla., and Sadex, Sioux City, Iowa, are the country’s two main irradiation service providers,” Eustice said.

“Omaha Steaks, Schwan’s and Wegmans are the most aggressive marketers [of irradiated meat],” he added.

However, the volume of irradiated foods being marketed in the U.S. at retail is rising because of imported exotic produce. “Mangoes from India and Mexico, guavas from Mexico, lychee and rambutan from Thailand, various items from Vietnam, purple sweet potatoes from Hawaii and several domestically grown items are arriving at supermarkets daily,” Eustice said. “The annual volume of irradiated produce exceeds 30 million pounds and has tripled since 2008.”

A ‘non-issue’
Consumer acceptance is a non-issue in the minds of those who are actively marketing irradiated food items, Eustice claimed. “The sale and construction of irradiators are being actively promoted by Canadian-based Nordion and GRAY*STAR, a firm in New Jersey,” Eustice added.

While the amount of irradiated meat and poultry sold in the U.S. has remained relatively steady at around 15 million pounds annually, the quantity of irradiated produce sold at retail has tripled during the past two years and now stands at 35 million pounds, Eustice said. “Currently, about 175 million pounds of irradiated spices are also being sold and distributed in the U.S. annually [which is about one-third of total annual spice usage in U.S.] and that quantity is expected to grow as a result of recent recalls and food borne illness outbreaks caused by meat products that were contaminated by non-irradiated spices,” he added. “The alternative technology [ethylene oxide] does not seem to be as effective as irradiation.”

Also, millions of pounds of pet treats are irradiated and marketed annually at many well-known retail and pet stores. “This is a very significant and rapidly growing use of irradiation,” Eustice said.

“Those companies that market irradiated food items have not seen consumer reluctance to purchase,” he added. “The key to consumer acceptance is ‘education, education, education’ combined with advertising and promotion.”

Looking ahead, Eustice predicted food irradiation will become a routine food-safety and disinfestation technology in the U.S. “Unfortunately, many sick children, lawsuits and bankruptcies will have to occur before irradiation takes its rightful place as the fourth pillar of public health along with pasteurization, immunization and chlorination,” Eustice added. “The greatest opportunity may be in the area of shelf-life extension to allow sea shipments instead of air. Irradiation will at least double the shelf-life of many food items.”
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