When Minnesota beef producers were challenged to make irradiated ground beef a commercial reality, Dennis Swan of the Minnesota Beef Council led the way. He's our Trailblazer Award honoree for 2000.
On May 16, 2000, a landmark event in U.S. public health history took place in Minnesota. The occasion was a press conference in Minneapolis marking the first day that irradiated or "cold-pasteurized" ground beef was commercially available to U.S. consumers.
In the audience was Dennis Swan, a third-generation farmer-feeder from Balaton, MN. He was one of a handful of beef producers among the gathering of national news media and representatives from government, public health and the food industry.
As the queue of distinguished speakers trooped to the microphone to extol the virtues of cold pasteurization and the significance of the day, Swan recollects how waves of pride washed over him.
"I remember how proud I was that this had all happened in my backyard; how it started in my own county. And, I thought about how Minnesota was again leading the way," he says.
As Swan sat there, he listened to Michael Osterholm, a world-renowned epidemiologist, describe the day as "an incredibly historic event." In front of consumer and trade media, Osterholm ranked the public health implications of the commercial debut of cold-pasteurized beef up there with the advent of immunizations and the chlorination and fluoridation of the water supply.
All the excitement was over a 2-lb. box of frozen ground beef patties produced by Huisken Meats, a small, independent processor located in Chandler, MN, just 20 miles south of Swan's 1,300-acre farm-feedlot in Murray County. The boxes containing the nation's first commercially available, irradiated beef product went on sale in Minneapolis grocery stores that day.
Within two months, the product was in 48 states, first through the Schwan's home delivery service and later through regional and national grocery chains supplied by Huisken.
It's understandable that the day would be an emotional one for 64-year-old Swan. It was the culmination of a three-year effort by Swan and the staff and members of the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC) he has chaired since July 1996.
"We did it because we knew irradiation could do for the beef industry what pasteurization had done for the dairy industry," Swan says. "Our people in Minnesota care about beef safety and are willing to get involved. Our staff, led by executive director Ron Eustice, directed it. Our board supported it. Our producers helped promote it, and our cattlewomen served samples.
"And, our Minnesota Department of Health helped by educating and influencing county health workers, opinion leaders and the public," Swan adds.
A Time Of Concern In 1997, stories about food-borne illness in fruit, vegetables and meat, but particularly E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, garnered big media attention. That August, an O157:H7 contamination resulted in the largest U.S. ground beef recall ever. Within months, processor Hudson Foods was out of business.
The stakes were high. This and other highly publicized cases had consumers, public health agencies and the beef industry in a tailspin. The incidents set off intense efforts in consumer education, rule making and research and development into methods to make the meat supply safer.
One of the best methods of controlling food-borne pathogens, however, was already proven and waiting on the shelf - irradiation. Researched for decades and approved by the World Health Organization and health authorities in 40 countries, use of the process had already been granted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for pork, poultry, fruits, spices, vegetables and grains. Approval for use on beef was expected in December 1997.
The problem was that food marketers and commodity groups were spooked that consumers might react negatively to irradiated food. As a result, little was being done to put this proven technology to practical, widespread use.
That was the backdrop when Osterholm, then the Minnesota state epidemiologist, contacted MBC's Eustice in fall 1997. He proposed that the MBC and his Minnesota Department of Health work together to make irradiated beef a commercial reality. He charged MBC with three tasks.
"He asked us to learn more about the irradiation process and determine the existing level of support among producers, packers, retailers and the institutional trade for the commercial use," Eustice says. "We also had to develop a strategy to educate the consumer about it."
They began by developing an issues forum on food safety for November of that year. Speakers and invitees to the forum included the Minnesota producer leadership as well as high-level executives from the food industry - packers, retail and food service. Also included were irradiation technology experts, market researchers and public health experts. Osterholm presented the keynote address.
"We laid out the history of food-borne illness, food safety and the irradiation technology. We talked about the benefits and discussed the objections," Eustice recalls. "Irradiated ground beef was served for lunch, the first time it had ever been served in Minnesota.
"At the end, the audience was asked: `where do we go from here?' There was unanimous agreement that irradiation was the way to go," Eustice says.
Among the most ardent, he says, was Swan.
"Mike Osterholm made me a believer," Swan recalls. "He talked to us about pathogens in meat, fruits and vegetables and the importance of irradiation, not as a silver bullet but as an added layer of protection. He asked for our help, and I felt we had to do it for the health and safety of consumers."
Volunteerism is a familiar attribute of Swan's. He served 23 years each on his township and elevator boards. He put in another 15 on his local school board. He's just beginning his 11th year on the MBC board - and his fourth as chairman - and he's a founding member of both MBC and the Minnesota State Cattlemen's Association (MSCA).
Swan explains his extensive record of volunteerism as "just things you do for your community and industry. You don't accomplish anything alone."
The Trail To Success Irradiation of beef products gained FDA approval on Dec. 5, 1997. Soon after that, Eustice, Swan and MSCA president Glen Graff traveled in Swan's car to Ames, IA. There they met with Dennis Olson, director of Iowa State University's (ISU) Utilization Center for Agricultural Products. They also toured the nation's first commercial-size research irradiation facility located on the ISU campus.
When the trio returned to Minnesota, in Swan's trunk were 1,500 samples of frozen, irradiated ground beef patties from the ISU facility. Those samples, which were distributed in early February to attendees of the Minnesota Restaurant Association trade show in Minneapolis, were the first of more than 150,000 samples MBC staff and members would distribute at food industry trade shows, women's expos and fairs over the next two years.
The reaction, Swan recalls, was tremendous: "Of all the tens of thousands of samples we passed out over the past two years, we had very few complaints."
MBC staff and members cultivated relationships with media, working in tandem with health officials to deliver a positive message. No opportunity to promote irradiation was passed up. After a space shuttle launch, for instance, MBC issued a press release informing consumers that the astronauts' diet consisted of irradiated food.
At the 1999 Minnesota State Fair, Beef Council staff and members distributed more than 50,000 irradiated beef samples, provided by Excel, to fair goers. At the 2000 Minnesota State Fair, another 28,000 samples, these provided by Huisken Meats, were distributed.
Looking For New Technology Huisken Meats produces snacks and frozen ground beef patties for its own label as well as Schwan's home delivery service and a number of retail grocery chains. The company began researching irradiation in 1996, says regional sales manager Cliff Albertson.
Huisken Meats "has a reputation for being on the leading edge of food safety and production innovation on beef patties," Albertson says. The firm was one of the first plants in the country to be designated a Total Quality Control plant by USDA. Albertson says: "Irradiation was a next natural step for us."
In 1998, Huisken Meats began cooperating with Eustice and the MBC on consumer education programs. It culminated with the commercial debut of Huisken irradiated product on May 16, 2000.
The patties are irradiated using the SureBeam cold pasteurization process, which uses regular commercial electricity to destroy harmful food-borne bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes, Salmonella and Campylobacter. It's one of three irradiation processes available. The other two utilize either gamma or x-rays.
The response, Albertson says, has been "phenomenally good." In just five months, irradiated beef patties now make up 25% of all beef patties produced by Huisken Meats. The firm currently is in the stage of expanding its irradiated ground beef patty production to a new location in Sauk Rapids, MN.
Proud as they are of what cattle producers accomplished in Minnesota, Eustice and Swan would like to see a larger national presence for irradiated ground beef.
"It's important that the National Cattlemen's Beef Association get behind this with checkoff dollars," Swan says.
As a model, Eustice points to the U.S. dairy industry. "The dairy industry pasteurizes its products. You don't see them spending checkoff money to develop new intervention strategies to kill bacteria.
"The beef industry has the same option," Eustice says. "Irradiation is the answer. Education is the key."
Eustice and Swan feel the same alliances Minnesota cattlemen forged with public health and food industry groups can work on a national basis. Eustice points to numerous studies that indicate a high level of acceptance among consumers knowledgeable about food safety and the irradiation process.
As to the safety and effectiveness of irradiation, the science is irrefutable, Eustice says. He refers to a newspaper quote delivered by Osterholm in response to a reporter's question about the scientific merit of irradiation.
"Anyone that opposes irradiation on a scientific basis is a nut," he said.