Two sets of rules on how packing plants can use irradiation to kill bacteria on red meat and how to label the products are expected to be issued mid-summer, reports the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Depending on the comments received and how long it takes to address concerns contained in the comments, USDA projects the rule could be finalized by the end of the year.

If that happens, meat companies wanting to use irradiation, might begin to do so sometime in 1999.

Regulation Details A petition to approve the meat industry's use of low-dose irradiation to kill bacteria was approved last December by the Food and Drug Administration. However, the agency left it up to USDA to develop rules for its application.

Those rules were expected to be issued within 60 to 90 days of the petition's approval.

But the irradiation rulemaking process has been bogged down with details and conflict.

The irradiation proposal is expected to provide a framework for its incorporation into a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system.

USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) must consider minimum/maximum absorbed dose specifications for irradiated pork and specifications for trichinae.

Regulations need to address the different options for packers to use irradiation - sending meat out to an irradiator or having an irradiator at their facility, says Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman.

Labeling is another detail to be addressed which has raised the ire of the National Food Processors Association. The trade group views irradiation as a process, not as a food additive that must appear on the label, and has petitioned FSIS to seek public comment on labeling for irradiated meat products.

Regulations must also address product safety and worker safety, so that consumers can get the full benefit that irradiation has to offer, says USDA.

But whether consumers will pay for an irradiated meat product or whether meat plants will invest in the technology remain to be seen.

Irradiation was approved for poultry in 1992 but has not been widely adopted because of cost and consumer concerns.

Laser Finds Contaminants Meanwhile, scientists at USDA's Agricultural Research Service and Iowa State University have built a hand-held laser that can alert meat packers to unseen fecal contamination on carcasses.

The detector causes fecal matter on meat to glow in a specific color, so it is easy to spot contamination, according to researchers who are seeking a patent on the process.

Because the detector works in seconds, packers can quickly sanitize carcasses before disease-causing bacteria spreads.

The new technology will ease the burden on packers trying to meet stiffer USDA rules for sanitation following the E. coli 0157:H7 outbreaks in the Pacific Northwest. FSIS is enforcing a zero tolerance policy for fecal contamination on livestock and poultry.

Up to now, meat inspectors have had to rely on visual inspection methods.