A major weapon in the fight against foodborne illness has been added to the nation's food safety arsenal. In early December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of irradiation on beef, pork and lamb.

Pork previously was approved for low-dose irradiation for the elimination of trichinae. (See: "Pork Industry Joins Push For Irradiation," Oct. 15, 1997, National Hog Farmer.)

First step in implementation is for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop a rule governing the irradiation process, expected before the end of January. A comment period and issuance of final rules will follow. USDA officials estimate the whole process may be completed by mid-1998.

Irradiated Meat In Stores While there is a limited number of irradiation facilities to handle product, there is a good chance of seeing some irradiated ground beef in stores as early as this summer, shortly after the rule becomes effective, remarks Dennis Olson, director of Iowa State University's (ISU) Utilization Center for Agricultural Products.

That's because there is a growing need for ground beef to be irradiated since the government declared E. coli 0157:H7 an adulterant, says Olson. That occurred after several people died from eating improperly cooked fast food hamburgers. Since then, there has been a massive product recall and allegations of tainted hamburger product being exported.

Beyond ground beef, before significant amounts of meat products including pork can be irradiated, it is going to take a major investment to build an industry infrastructure, and that could take a couple of years, says Olson.

Petition Process The process all started in 1994 with a petition filed by Isomedix Inc. calling for a mid-dose level of irradiation of red meat products. The firm is about ready to open an irradiation facility in Libertyville, IL. It stands as one of only a handful of available facilities ready to irradiate meat. Olson's Linear Accelerator Facility is the nation's only food irradiator dedicated to research and producing test market products.

Olson projects it will take 30 irradiators to handle demand for red meat products. There are about 60 irradiators in the country now, but most of them are used to irradiate medical supplies and devices; a growing number of plants are also cleansing cosmetic products of bacteria.

Olson projects ground beef patty manufacturers will be the first to build irradiation facilities. A number of facilities may also be built near cold storage meat plants. And we may see product moving to locations to be irradiated, then moved into distribution, he says. Of course, that will add to the cost.

Cost Of Irradiation Olson estimates 1-5 cents/lb. to irradiate meat products, more if transportation costs are involved. At retail, cost of irradiated meats could command a price premium of several cents a pound. "There are a few retail stores that have sold irradiated poultry, and generally it has been in the range of 10 cents a pound more than non-irradiated poultry products," he says.

In retail trials by ISU conducted in Manhattan, KS, irradiated chicken breasts held their own. When priced lower, and at the same price as regular chicken, the irradiated chicken showed a 65 "percent" market share, regular chicken a 47 "percent" share. Most interesting, says Olson, is how irradiated chicken maintained an 18% market share when priced about 60 cents/lb. higher.

Surveys indicate the number of consumers concerned about irradiated foods has declined in the past 10 years. Marketing of irradiated foods, although limited in the U.S., has been successful, according to Christine Bruhn, Center for Consumer Research, University of California-Davis. And numerous studies show that half or more of consumers express interest in purchasing irradiated meat and poultry products, she says.

Recognized As Safe Food irradiation is widely recognized by numerous scientific bodies in the U.S. and throughout the world as a safe, food treatment technology, according to Beth Lautner, DVM, vice president of Science and Technology, National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). FDA's approval is based on a thorough, scientific review of a substantial number of studies conducted worldwide on the effects of irradiation on a wide variety of meat products, according to Lautner.

Approval of the irradiation petition will allow for a pasteurization effect and extend the shelf life of pork. Approval is for 4.5 kGy (kilograys) of irradiation in fresh meat products, up to 7.0 kGy in frozen products, says Olson.

It's not a panacea. "It is a tool to complement, not replace, responsible practices by farmers, processors and consumers in the handling of meat products," explains Lautner.

Irradiation: First Step? In irradiation, gamma rays produced by cobalt or electrons from machine sources produce an accelerated beam that "charges" the molecules of an object, altering its structure enough that bacterial pathogens cannot multiply and are destroyed.

It's similar to exposure to sunlight or being X-rayed for medical reasons, explains Donald W. Thayer, a research scientist with USDA's Agricultural Research Service, involved in testing irradiation for 16 years.

The new approved level for meat products will easily kill any trichinae and other contaminants, assures Olson.

But it has little effect on the quality of the food itself because there is no cellular activity, says Thayer.

There has been some concern raised regarding irradiation affecting some very sensitive vitamins like B1 in pork.

"But it has been estimated that if all the pork in the United States were to be irradiated, Americans would lose only 3.2% of the vitamin B1 in their diets," says Thayer.

To avoid recontamination, the best time to irradiate meat products is after they are packaged and sealed, says Olson.

Even so, there are still some spoilage organisms left after this pasteurization level of irradiation, meaning meat products still must be refrigerated, he says.

It is possible to go to a high enough dose of irradiation to completely sterilize meat products. "That is done for some meats that are approved for the space program," says Olson.

So in effect, the FDA approval represents a kind of first step in the use of irradiation to protect meat products. He predicts higher doses will be approved in the future to provide even greater protection.

One day, meat products may be irradiated to the point of sterilization, predicts Olson. Then, combined with other processes to enhance the safety and quality of the product, meat could be shelf-stable for 3-4 years.

A video and print materials are available from Iowa State University (ISU) to help consumers better understand the relationship between food irradiation and food safety.

The Irradiation of Meat educational packet (EDC-22) contains a one-hour video and a binder with background materials, an educator's guide, overhead transparencies and an extensive bibliography for $35. The video-only portion (EDC-84) sells for $25.

For more information or to order, contact Extension Distribution Center, Iowa State University, 119 Kooser Drive, Ames, IA 50011-3171, or call 515/294-5247.