Although experts say it’s technically impossible to produce a bacteria-free, fresh-meat supply, industry continues to tirelessly research new and emerging strategies to reduce bacteria as much as possible. And industry has come a long way in recent decades in developing effective on-farm and in-plant food-safety interventions.

Some of the most common on-farm interventions used today by the US meat and poultry industry are vaccines and probiotics — probiotic bacteria are harmless, beneficial and compete with pathogens to reduce or prevent their colonization of the gut, according to the American Meat Institute Foundation (AMIF). Common in-plant interventions include hide washes, sanitary hide removal, carcass washes/hot water washes, steam vacuums, thermal treatment /steam pasteurization, acidified sodium chlorite, lactic acid wash, lactoferrin or calcium hypochlorite, chlorine dioxide, and bacteriophages (safe, harmless viruses that can attack and destroy targeted bacteria).

Meanwhile, although not much appears about it in the media these days, meat irradiation continues being utilized as an effective intervention in the US. I’ve long been a proponent of food irradiation —particularly irradiating ground beef — after learning about its benefits first-hand from some of its leading experts back in the early 1990s.

When asked who’s active in offering irradiated meat these days, one insider recently told me Omaha Steaks and Schwan’s irradiate all of their uncooked ground beef. “These companies were pioneers in food irradiation and have irradiated every pound of ground beef sold since 2000,” says Ronald Eustice, a food quality and safety-assurance consultant based in Minneapolis, Minn. and Tucson, Ariz. “Wegmans, a Rochester, NY-based upscale retailer, is also a firm believer in irradiation of ground beef,” he adds. “They offer several different, fresh irradiated ground-beef choices. Another [unnamed] major retailer has begun to offer fresh ground beef that has been irradiated and sells in certain markets.”

Gamma and electron-beam irradiation are both being used very successfully on ground beef, Eustice points out. “Three [third-party irradiation service] facilities in the US currently irradiate ground beef [Food Technology Service Inc., Mulberry, Fla.; Sadex Inc., Sioux City, Iowa; and Texas A&M Univ., College Station, Texas] among many other items,” he adds. “At this point, no [meat and/or poultry] irradiation is taking place in-plant [in the US], but there is interest,” he adds.

There is continual interest in irradiation as a food-safety intervention among US meat and poultry processors because of the new E. coli strains and Salmonella in beef and poultry; it is also of interest in treating vibrio in fresh oysters, Eustice points out. “The volume of irradiated ground beef sold in the US has remained steady at 15 to 18 million lbs. annually since 2000,” he adds. “Consumer response has been very positive. Within the past year, a food irradiation facility was opened at Gulfport, Miss. Gateway America has irradiated a huge amount of oysters for several companies to reduce vibrio to undetectable levels.”

The volume of irradiated oysters has grown tremendously and, in fact, irradiation has saved the oyster industry from the scourge of vibrio, Eustice says.

Close to 40 million lbs. of irradiated fruits are also sold annually in the US with excellent consumer acceptance, he says. “The volume of irradiated produce [for phytosanitary purposes] is growing in the US, as well in other countries,” Eustice adds.

What would it take to gain more interest from the US meat and poultry industry in using some form of irradiation to treat their finished products? Eustice answers, “While significant progress has been made by the beef industry to reduce the incidence of E. coli O157:H7, ‘new’ serotypes of E. coli are being discovered including E. coli O103, E. coli O111, E. coli O121, E. coli O145, E. coli O26 and E. coli O45. Most laboratories do not test for these serotypes, thus, the incidence is unknown. Random testing shows that the incidence of non-O157:H7 serotypes may be as high as 2 percent. Very little progress has been made in reducing the incidence of Salmonella in ground beef and poultry. Irradiation is an effective intervention to eliminate Salmonella as well as E. coli and other harmful bacteria.”

Although irradiation is currently under-utilized as a food safety and phytosanitary tool, this technology’s future still remains bright, Eustice insists. “Irradiation is one of the most effective tools to increase the safety of our food supply,” he says. “Consumer acceptance of irradiated ground beef sold by Omaha Steaks, Schwans, Wegmans and others has been excellent,” he iterates.

Irradiation is just one tool in the food-safety arsenal…but it’s an important, effective and underutilized tool that should be further investigated, particularly by US ground-beef processors.

For more information on alternative intervention technologies being used by the US meat and poultry industry, read this exclusive article in the March issue of Meat&Poultry magazine.