This summer, the US Dept. of Agriculture quietly turned down a six-year-old petition from the American Meat Institute to allow the use of electron-beam irradiation on meat and poultry carcasses as a food-safety processing tool. The Food Safety and Inspection Service’s decision somehow was kept under the radar and avoided coverage by most national daily newspapers, TV reports and the news was scarcely mentioned on the Internet.

The petition was submitted by the trade association in 2005, and food- safety regulators mulled it for more than five years.

Ironically, the idea was supported by both the meat and poultry industry and some consumer groups, although some consumer advocates voiced concerns about the safety of eating irradiated food. There were also concerns about consumers being unwilling to embrace food products bearing labels with the Radura symbol– the official irradiation logo.

With the implementation of the Food Safety Modernization Act and the pressure of accountability for food safety put even more squarely on the food industry, AMI faults FSIS for not taking action to remove an obstacle to use what it calls a safe and proven technology to help improve the safety of poultry and meat products.

While FSIS voiced technical reasons for turning down the petition, AMI countered, saying it had simply asked the agency to start the process of making a labeling-policy change to encourage the use of irradiation technology. AMI added that the industry needs as many food-safety tools as possible, and this tool would be added to many others food processing companies already use. Any technical issues related to how carcass irradiation is applied could be discussed and resolved during rulemaking, AMI officials insisted. It plans to continue working with FSIS to resolve these technical questions.

Technical concerns

What are the technical reasons FSIS was concerned about? USDA thought the shape of beef carcasses could lead to uneven application of e-beam irradiation. That, the agency believes, is related to the claim irradiation would be of the low-dose or low-penetration variety. FSIS said the association could submit a new petition and the industry could treat chilled beef carcasses with irradiation, as long as existing regulations for absorbed dose and labels are followed. But those requirements are different than what would be needed in order to be a processing aid for companies. It would be easier for companies to use the technology as a processing aid. That’s why the petition was submitted to USDA in the first place.

Last year, USDA hinted it might not approve the AMI petition. The goal of irradiation as a processing aid is to reduce E. coli on beef. At the same time, reports surfaced ammonia was being used as a processing aid on some beef to reduce the amount of that pathogen on the products. It sounds like the issue is centered more on labeling than the use of irradiation, because that can be done currently but not as a processing aid. Therefore there are different regulatory requirements. FSIS also pointed out the AMI petition didn’t address how multiple applications of irradiation could be evaluated. Again, that could have been discussed and resolved during rulemaking, but the agency said there wasn’t enough detail in the petition to make it worthwhile to even begin rulemaking.

Yet, in its letter to AMI, the agency said there was merit to consider low-dose, low-penetration e-beam irradiation on the surface of chilled beef carcasses as a processing aid. Three years ago, FSIS held a public meeting about the petition to allow the public to make comments. After reviewing the public comments and additional scientific information, the agency took its position against irradiation as a processing aid. It added that it was concerned that low penetration and possible re-irradiation would affect product during further processing of meat products, when irradiation has been used as a processing aid.

Politics in play?

Despite USDA’s rejection of the petition on what it calls a scientific basis, there may be more politics involved than anything else. Irradiation for food safety has been a controversial issue for a long time. Scientific evidence shows it is not a hazard to people or affect food’s nutritional value. Some critics say it doesn’t prevent fecal contamination, but that issue can be resolved in other ways. Others disapprove, saying making irradiation a processing aid would remove the requirement for an irradiation symbol on labeling. They believe people would then be buying meat products in the grocery store without knowing irradiation had been used during processing.

But all of these issues can be discussed and worked out during the rulemaking process. That’s where this process should go right now, and AMI and FSIS should come to that conclusion. If another petition has to be submitted, that could take another five or six years for something to happen.

With the concern about food safety and the accountability of meat and poultry processing companies for this safety now, steps should be taken as quickly as possible to give industry the tools it needs to eliminate pathogens from meat and poultry products. Doing it at the carcass level would make this food-safety tool available to all sizes of meat and poultry processors.