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Whatever Happened To Irradiation?

Public health officials are key in reviving this food-safety technology,

It was eight years ago on May 16 that irradiated ground beef first became commercially available in the U.S. That was the day that frozen ground beef patties in two-lb. boxes from Huisken's Meats of Chandler, MN went on sale in 84 grocery stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.

By the end of 2003, 15 million lbs. of fresh and frozen irradiated product were available by mail order and in more than 10,000 retail outlets and 2,000 restaurants in 48 states.

The fervor was driven predominantly by an alliance of industry, producers and human-health professionals in Minnesota. Their aim was to remove the deadly E. coli O157:H7 threat in ground beef, the industry's number-one convenience product.

The technology driving the impressive growth was that of San Diego-based SureBeam Corp. Its electronic pasteurization technology used commercial electricity to provide a 99.999% kill of bacterial pathogens, without affecting the product's taste and nutrient profile.

SureBeam sold no products — it only provided the service. Its sales efforts were dedicated to pulling product through the system by convincing consumers of its safety, and retailers to carry irradiated product. Those retailers would then place orders with their meat suppliers, who would ship finished packaged product to SureBeam facilities for irradiation treatment. The treatment costs were about 10¢/lb.

SureBeam hurts the movement

But in 2003, SureBeam ran into financial problems after embarking on an overly ambitious building program that placed irradiation facilities near meat-processing centers in Chicago and Sioux City, IA. Unable to meet its obligations, SureBeam closed its doors for good in January 2004.

SureBeam's closure was a big blow to proponents of food irradiation, particularly for ground beef, which was picking up momentum. Food Technology Service Inc. of Mulberry, FL, which uses gamma radiation rather than electron treatment to kill organisms (a third treatment method is by X-rays), picked up some of the slack. And eventually SureBeam's Sioux City facilities were purchased by Sadex Corp.

But the irradiation movement has struggled to regain its footing ever since, with less than 10 million lbs. of irradiated ground beef being sold today. A boost came in 2004 when USDA began offering irradiated beef in national school lunch and other federal food programs, but adoption has been stymied by activist pressure against school boards.

Another dissuading factor was that beef recalls had dropped dramatically, says Dennis Olson, an Iowa State University meats scientist and irradiation expert who served as vice president of food technology for SureBeam. Only five beef recalls were conducted in 2005, and eight in 2006, and both had minimal illness associated with them.

But the sensational contaminated spinach incident of September 2006 that resulted in three deaths sparked renewed interest in pathogen reduction, he says. Two months later, the nation was rocked with news of 100 reported illnesses caused by bacterial contamination of lettuce. Then in 2007, more than 30 million lbs. of ground beef in a total of more than 20 recalls, brought the issue back to the fore on the beef side.

Leafy greens attract attention

The “leafy greens” issues put irradiation front and center. Legislators demanded to know why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hadn't taken action on a petition filed eight years before to permit irradiation for pathogen reduction on fruits and vegetables and other ready-to-eat foods. Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, appeared before a House subcommittee hearing in March and said a determination was expected by October.

Such approval would be a big boon to acceptance of the technology, Olson says. “I think companies would start to take a serious look at whether they should adopt it,” he adds.

While Olson allows that processors, trade groups and producers haven't done enough to promote the acceptance of irradiation among consumers, those groups aren't the key to widespread acceptance and adoption of the technology.

“A hundred years ago, we were locked in a similar debate about milk pasteurization. We debated whether it was safe to heat milk, and for young kids to drink it. Was the pasteurization process changing the chemicals in the milk?

“The reason pasteurization is widely used today is because the public health officials demanded it. It wasn't the dairy organizations that wanted it, or the equipment manufacturers, or even the consumers. It was the public health officials, and that's something we haven't yet had with irradiation,” he says.