Irradiating meat makes sense FDA decision: May need education program to erase consumer fears of process.

December 09, 1997

PEOPLE WHO might pop a bun into a microwave oven to make it taste fresh don't want their ground beef irradiated before purchase. Their groundless fear of eating radioactive meat is another example of Americans' mixed emotions about anything nuclear, even when its use promotes food safety.

Accidents such as last month's salmonella poisoning of 750 people who ate at a St. Mary's County church supper make the irradiation of meat a sensible step. The Food and Drug Administration last week gave meat processors permission to use gamma radiation on raw meat as a means to kill bacteria. Unfortunately, food companies fearful of rejection by consumers appear reluctant to begin using the process.

Irradiation of poultry was approved years ago, but it is rarely used because of the same fear that consumers won't buy products they consider dangerous. Ironically, it is irradiation that will reduce the danger of food poisoning. It can destroy deadly bacteria such E. coli, but the process doesn't make meat radioactive.

The FDA is expected to make a decision within 60 days on Isomedix Inc.'s petition to begin irradiating meat for food companies. Some critics fear the meat industry will rely on irradiation instead of cleaning up filthy conditions. That position, however, is more a plea for better enforcement of food safety regulations than an argument against irradiation.

Perhaps the food industry should launch a national education campaign to dispel the myths about irradiation and explain its benefits. Irradiated food must be labeled as such, although the type no longer has to scare grocery shoppers by being larger than a product's list of ingredients. Irradiated meat and poultry may cost as much as 5 cents more per pound, but that price to make food safer will be worth it.

Pub Date: 12/09/97

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