From slaughterhouse to irradiator Food safety: The FDA's approval of irradiation as a means to kill deadly organisms on meat has revived debate over the practice.

Sun Journal

December 22, 1997|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

Like an old song that keeps coming back, the debate over food irradiation has resurfaced again. The catalyst is the Food and Drug Administration's decision to approve irradiation as a way to kill potentially deadly organisms on beef, lamb and organ meat.

Perhaps the first thing to know about food irradiation is that it isn't new -- not the idea, not the technology, not the debate. Since the 1980s, the Food and Drug Administration has acted several times to approve irradiation for different foods -- spices, pork, fresh fruits, enzyme preparations, dried vegetables and poultry.

Food irradiation, also known as "cold pasteurization," works by exposing products to unstable substances such as cobalt 60 that emit gamma radiation.

As the radiation passes through the food product, it destroys most of the pathogens in its way -- E. coli in beef; salmonella in chickens and swine; cambylobacter in chickens and cows, yirsinia in swine.

The technology has been widely used for about 40 years to sterilize nonfood items. Isomedix, a New Jersey firm, has 16 irradiation facilities that decontaminate such products as cosmetics, baby pacifiers, packaging materials and medical equipment.

Company officials are now salivating at the mere thought of beef.

"In my career I've never seen as high a level of interest in the commercial utilization of food irradiation," says John Masefield, Isomedix's chairman and chief operating officer. "These bacteria we're talking about now are deadly."

It was Isomedix that initially petitioned the FDA to approve irradiation for beef, filing a 1,300-page brief after an E. coli outbreak in 1993 that killed four patrons of the Jack-in-the-Box restaurant chain.

Despite scientists' assurances that irradiated food is safe, the technology has stalled in the face of threatened boycotts by consumer groups and the perception, at least, that consumers aren't ready to buy a product that carries the ominous (if misunderstood) label, "irradiated."

One by one, food producers have clamored for the right to irradiate products and then balked at the opportunity to do so. None wants to be first.

Irradiation has made its biggest mark on the spice industry, where about 8 percent of the 650 million pounds of spices sold to industrial customers such as sausage makers are zapped.

But there is hardly a consumer tin of parsley, sage, rosemary or thyme that has been treated this way.

One reason is labeling. Processed foods flavored with irradiated herbs and spices do not have to carry the "irradiated" label because the seasonings constitute only a tiny fraction of the total product.

However, spices bound for the grocery shelves that are 100 percent irradiated would easily fall within the government's labeling requirements.

Eight years after the government approved the use of gamma rays on poultry, hardly a grocer is to be found selling irradiated chicken. What poultry is irradiated goes to hospital patients and astronauts, two groups that have every reason to avoid unwanted pathogens.

"Poultry has been slow to a considerable extent because the other meats weren't approved," says Dr. George Beran, a professor of veterinary medicine at Iowa State University who specializes in food-safety issues.

It remains to be seen whether the beef producers will seize the opportunity to bring irradiation into the mainstream.

"I think it's definitely going to happen," says Janet Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute, a trade group. "The industry will treat it the way it treats any new product, with lots of consumer research and careful introduction. And consumer demand will dictate the availability of irradiated meat products."

In other words, the industry will use its newfound right carefully, easing the technology gently -- even withdrawing it if the public proves reluctant.

The industry senses, however, that the public may be more accepting this time.

The difference is a series of legitimate public-health scares created by hamburger tainted by the nasty bacterial strain known as E. coli 0157.

Last summer, Hudson Foods Inc. recalled 25 million pounds of hamburger meat after 16 people in Colorado became ill from eating its frozen ground beef. Although severe illness related to the bacterial strain can be traced to 1982, it didn't become widely known until the Jack-in-the-Box debacle of 1993.

This strain lives in the intestines of cows, doing people no harm unless residues contaminate cuts of beef in the slaughterhouse. Contamination can also occur on the farm when cow hides are fouled by cow manure.

Steaks seldom make people ill. The bacteria lurk on the surface and are easily killed by grilling or broiling. Grinding turns the surface inward again and again. Broiling doesn't destroy the bacteria within the meat. Thorough cooking does, but many people savor their hamburgers pink.

In theory, an irradiated hamburger could be cooked rare and safely eaten -- but only if it is kept clean after it leaves the cobalt chamber.

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