When it comes to enhancing food safety, one proven and effective technology available is food irradiation. But progress advancing this technology in the US meat and poultry industry has been too slow.

The US Department of Agriculture issued its final rule on meat and poultry irradiation way back in December 1999. The Food Safety and Inspection Service amended its regulations to permit using ionizing radiation to treat refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat by-products and certain other meat food products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens plus extend shelf-life. FSIS also revised its regulations governing irradiating poultry products so they will be as consistent as possible with the regulations for the irradiation of meat products. The final rule became effective Feb. 22, 2000.

Regarding food irradiation regulations, not much has happened since. Proponents thought a petition filed in the late 1990s to allow irradiating further value-added meat and poultry would have been approved promptly. Although they’re still waiting for some action, industry insiders are optimistic approvals will occur this year.

In the early 2000s, electron-beam irradiation of ground beef started taking off. The movement began in Minnesota and spread to East Coast supermarkets and started expanding westward. But this momentum quickly died following the demise of SureBeam Corp. — the leading US food irradiation service provider at that time.

Regardless of the past, irradiation remains an important technology. Discussions are underway to further harmonize meat and poultry irradiation regulations, Ron Eustice, executive director, Minnesota Beef Council and consultant to the Food Irradiation Processing Alliance, recently told me. With Salmonella issues, there is growing interest in poultry irradiation but regulatory hurdles must be overcome, he added.

Food currently irradiated in the US includes red meat and poultry, about 18 million lbs. (major players are Omaha Steaks, Schwan's and Wegmans); produce, 35 million lbs.; and growing rapidly, spices, 175 million lbs.; and pet treats/toys, 40 million lbs., Eustice relayed.

In the near future and beyond, the major food-safety concern will be non-O157H7 strains and Salmonella, Eustice predicted. There are more illnesses attributed to non-O157 E. coli than O157:H7 and USDA is mandating testing for the non-O157 strains. The ‘new’ strains are out there and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports they are causing significant numbers of people to become ill.

Salmonella is a big concern. CDC reports no recent progress has been made in reducing Salmonella infections. While poultry is often contaminated with Salmonella, it is also a problem with beef. “We are also starting to see multi drug-resistant forms of Salmonella,” Eustice said.

Ground beef could benefit the most from irradiation. Most know irradiation is effective, safe and cost effective, but some are concerned about consumer acceptance, Eustice said. “Omaha Steaks and Schwan's have irradiated all their raw ground beef for 11 years” he added. “Management at both companies has told me there is no consumer pushback and that many of their customers buy their ground beef because it is irradiated.”

Some “consumer organizations”, non-government organizations (NGOs), are actively resisting the implementation of food irradiation using fear as their weapon. One common theme articulated by certain NGOs is industry will use irradiation to “clean up dirty meat” before selling it to consumers. This is a false and damning claim that literally accuses the US Department of Agriculture of not doing its job, Eustice said.

Quite the contrary, he added. USDA inspectors serve the public very well; inspecting facilities each morning before plant operations are allowed to start, conducting daily inspections, which include checking plant records, reviewing plant HACCP, GMP and sanitation plans and processes and putting their USDA seal of approval on every package and box of product shipped from an inspected facility.

More companies would take a much more serious look at implementing irradiation as a food-safety intervention if consumer groups and USDA would more actively support expanded use of irradiation, especially for ground meats, Eustice said, “With greater support from USDA and others, industry is beginning to take a fresh look at this opportunity,” he added.

Some see the mandated Radura symbol as a reason not to irradiate. “But most people don't even look at the label,” Eustice countered. “We need USDA, CDC and the medical profession to give support to help educate the public about the benefits of irradiation. The Radura symbol must be positioned as a mark of quality, which it is.”

There is more than 60 years of research on irradiation and it is known to be a very effective tool to reduce or eliminate deadly pathogens from the US meat supply, yet millions of dollars are spent annually trying to identify alternative technologies, such as vaccines, pre-harvest interventions and more chemicals to add to the sprays, rinses and washes, Eustice pointed out.

Few university research projects involving irradiation are submitted for funding because “everyone knows it works and is highly effective,” Eustice said. Scientists who have objectively studied the various interventions and compared results have confided to Eustice that irradiation is the most effective technology to kill bacteria.

Another challenge for food irradiation is the Delaney Clause classifies irradiation as an additive instead of a process. This is a detriment to industry acceptance — and it will take an act of Congress to change this. More packaging materials must be approved for this process, but companies won’t invest money in research and development unless there is the promise of significant volume, Eustice said.

And for some, the name irradiation is a turn-off. A name change to ionization or cold pasteurization could help.

Despite these hurdles, consumer research consistently shows irradiation is viewed positively. Companies that have taken time to do consumer acceptance research have been pleasantly surprised with the results, Eustice said. Providing information about the benefits of irradiation results have shown strong and significant consumer support for this process in the 85 to 90-percentile range, Eustice said. “Those who remain unconvinced generally don't like any technology and irradiation is just one of many they reject,” he added.

Allowing consumers to sample irradiated product is one key to building acceptance. However, US beef industry groups, including those that are checkoff-funded, have not done an adequate job of informing producers who fund the checkoff about food irradiation. “I can only recall one time that irradiated ground beef was served at a national US beef industry event — and that was in 1999,” Eustice said.

A colleague of Eustice’s recently served irradiated ground beef from Schwan's during the Cattle Industry Convention in Nashville. “It's high time the folks who determine where checkoff dollars are spent take a serious, objective look at irradiation. There are lots of folks vying for a gradually shrinking pool of research dollars and use of irradiation would allow the beef industry to focus those funds in other areas,” Eustice said.

During a recent taste test in Canada amongst meat marketing people at a beef conference, participants could not tell the difference between irradiated and non-irradiated product, Eustice said. What’s more, slightly more ranked the irradiated sample higher, he added.

Still, some insiders have told me in recent years although the process is safe and effective; some companies have experienced off-flavors and off-odors due to the irradiation process. Eustice said when irradiation is done at the correct doses, flavor and quality changes are negligible, as companies such as Omaha Steaks, Schwan’s and Wegmans have clearly demonstrated.

Moving forward, a very strong and vocal partnership between at least one fearless irradiation provider and an industry coalition is needed to champion and market the safety and effectiveness of food irradiation. They will also need the courage to counter the anti-irradiation forces that are bound to attack them and this technology once the process starts catching on again.