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You may love to sink your chops into a thick, juicy hamburger, but how confident are you in the safety of ground beef? According to Ipsos-Reid, a market research firm based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, six of 10 consumers surveyed in 2001 are confident in the safety of the ground beef they buy at the supermarket. Additionally, six of 10 consumers are confident in the safety of ground beef or burger meals ordered in restaurants.

Those percentages are expected to rise in the years ahead, thanks to one of the most newsworthy and sometimes controversial technologies of this new century - food irradiation.

Radiation Is the Energy, Irradiation Is the Process

Irradiation breaks up bacteria's DNA, preventing the organism from reproducing.
Food irradiation is the process of exposing food to controlled levels of a particular form of electromagnetic energy known as ionizing radiation. This term is used to describe these rays of energy because they cause whatever material they contact to produce electrically charged particles called ions.

Ionizing radiation is a part of the spectrum of electromagnetic energy that includes a type of energy similar to radio and television waves, microwaves and infrared radiation. However, the higher frequency and hence higher amount of energy produced by ionizing radiation allows it to penetrate deeply into food, killing microorganisms without significantly raising the food's temperature.

Within approved dosages, irradiation has been shown to kill at least 99.9 percent of common foodborne pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, Salmonella (various species) and others, making hamburger, poultry, processed meats, eggs and produce safer for consumers, while reducing liability for sellers.

Irradiation disrupts the DNA strands in pathogenic microorganisms, such as bacteria, yeasts and molds, thereby either destroying the organism or preventing its reproduction. Scientists often compare the process to thermal pasteurization of milk.

Irradiation also inactivates insect pests (particularly from fruits and vegetables) and extends product shelf life. What's more, many people consider irradiation a more desirable alternative to chemical or heat treatments to achieve these same results because it leaves no residue or toxic by-products.

Making History

Following USDA's approval of a red meat irradiation protocol on Dec. 14, 1999, history was made in May 2000 when Sauk Rapids, Minn.-based Huisken Meats became the first ground beef processor in the country to commercially market irradiated frozen ground beef. From an initial distribution in 84 major grocery stores in the Twin Cities area, the availability of Huisken's irradiated products has quickly grown to include thousands of supermarkets in some 30 states.

Wegmans Food Markets, based in Rochester, N.Y., made headlines in May 2002 as the first supermarket chain in the United States to introduce irradiated fresh ground beef under its own private-label brand - Wegmans Irradiated Fresh Ground Beef.

Schwan's, Marshall, Minn., began to sell irradiated frozen beef patties nationwide through home delivery in 2000.
Now, at least 30 U.S. retail supermarket chains, including about 10 based in Minnesota, have grabbed the baton and are known to be selling fresh and/or frozen irradiated ground beef nationwide.

The Edina, Minn.-based International Dairy Queen became the first fast food chain in the nation to include irradiated hamburger patties on its menu. More than 100 Dairy Queen franchises in Minnesota and neighboring states now offer irradiated ground beef following a gradual expansion, which began with just two rural Minnesota stores in February 2002.

Setting the Stage

Minnesota owes its stature in ground beef irradiation to the vision and leadership of Michael Osterholm, now director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.

After Nebraska's Hudson Foods' 1997 headline E. coli 0157:H7 ground beef recall, Osterholm, as the Minnesota State Epidemiologist, contacted the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC) and proposed that the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the MBC work together to make irradiated ground beef a commercial reality.

Osterholm and the MBC began the education process by hosting a food safety issues forum in November 1997. Forum participants learned about the history of foodborne illnesses, food safety and irradiation technology. The benefits of and objections to irradiation were also discussed.

"The 'Minnesota Model' of consumer education involving product sampling, informational workshops, press releases and partnerships with public and private groups is serving as a catalyst to expand the marketing of irradiated food nationwide and help make ground beef and other foods some of the safest on the consumer's dinner table," says Ron Eustice, MBC's executive director. Currently the MBC is assisting about two dozen state beef councils, health departments and other groups with educational workshops, product sampling and information distribution.

"No opportunity was lost to present the facts and tell consumers about the positive role that irradiation could play in stopping the spread of foodborne disease in ground beef and other foods," Eustice adds. "The MBC, in partnership with the MDH, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture and other supporters, put the critics on the defensive every time they came forward."

Market Misconceptions

Not surprisingly, there is some public concern about the use of irradiation on food products.

A small, but vocal minority of people do not believe that the quality and safety of food remains unaltered after being exposed to radiant energy. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that irradiation makes food radioactive, which simply isn't true. However, reality suggests otherwise. Consider the facts:

One billion lbs. of food products and ingredients are irradiated annually worldwide(1);

Ninety-seven million lbs. of food products are irradiated annually in the United States(2); and

Five to 10 percent of all ground beef processed in the United States is irradiated(3).

"Demand for and availability of irradiated food is expected to rise," Eustice says, "due in large part to continued media coverage of bioterrorism and meat recalls, which has heightened consumers' concerns about food safety."

Moreover, according to the Centers for Disease Control, each year 76 million Americans will contract a usually preventable foodborne illness; 325,000 of those stricken will require hospitalization, and nearly 5,000 will die.

Research shows that the key to consumer acceptance of food irradiation is education.
Research studies have consistently shown that the key to consumer acceptance of irradiation of food products is education, says Christine Bruhn, an Extension consumer food marketing specialist with the University of California-Davis. Most recently, a 2002 study conducted under the leadership of Kansas State University ag economist Sean Fox reveals that information about irradiation has a significant effect on attitudes toward the process.

"Only 32 percent of respondents who did not receive an informational brochure with their survey form reported a positive attitude toward irradiation," Fox relates. "Of those who received a brochure labeled 'Based on information provided by the food irradiation industry,' 66 percent reported a positive attitude, while of those who received a brochure labeled 'Based on information provided by the Food and Drug Administration and the United States Department of Agriculture' 76 percent reported a positive attitude."

The bottom line, Fox summarizes, is that when given facts from reliable sources, the majority of consumers have a favorable attitude about irradiation.

Irradiation Choices

In the United States, three types of ionizing radiation have been approved for irradiating food: gamma rays, high energy electrons, which are sometimes referred to as electron beams (or e-beams), and X-rays. Until recently, gamma rays have been the exclusive source of food irradiation in this country.

While these three types of ionizing radiation have the same effects on food, there are some differences in how they work, says John Masefield, an executive advisor with Steris/Isomedix Services, Inc., Menton, Ohio, and chairman of the Food Irradiation Processing Alliance.

´´Gamma ray technology uses the radiation given off by a radioactive substance, typically Cobalt 60, which is a radioactive isotope of the element cobalt," Masefield explains. "Cobalt 60 gives off high energy photons, called gamma rays, which can penetrate foods to a depth of several feet. It's important to note that Cobalt 60 does not give off particulate radiation (neutrons), which means it cannot make anything around it radioactive."

Electron beam and X-ray irradiators - irradiation facilities - are operated by electricity and do not use radioactive isotopes. The newest technology is X-ray irradiation. "This is an outgrowth of e-beam technology and is still being developed," Masefield mentions.

Several X-ray irradiation units have been built in recent years; however, some experts feel this technology won't get widespread use for food irradiation. That's because the higher electric power requirement will mean higher operating costs compared to the other two technologies.

"Like cobalt gamma rays, X-rays can pass through thick foods, and require heavy shielding for safety. However, like e-beams, the machine can be switched on and off, and no radioactive substances are involved," Masefield explains.

Regardless of the type of energy source used, the actual irradiation process takes place at the food processing facility, after packaging in initial boxes or final cartons, or at an irradiation service center.

Big Business

Electron beam, X-ray and gamma ray food irradiation facilities are all multimillion-dollar propositions. It is possible to install a small in-plant, or even online, irradiation processing system, but the cost will still be at least $2 million to $4 million, industry insiders say.

The cost per unit processed with these small systems is higher than the unit processing costs in large irradiation facilities, due to lower throughputs - fewer pounds of product irradiated per year. The increase in cost for irradiated foods over non-irradiated ones is estimated at 2 to 3 cents per pound for fruits and vegetables and 3 to 8 cents per pound for meat products.

Key Players

Food Technology Service Inc., Mulberry, Fla., was the first irradiation company in North America dedicated to the food market. Since 1993, Food Tech has been using gamma irradiation to treat a wide variety of products including spices, produce, poultry and food packaging.

Around 1994, Food Tech created the Nations Pride label to help food companies bring irradiated products to market, including fresh and frozen poultry, fruits and vegetables.

"In those early days, most companies didn't want it known that their products were irradiated," says Jim Jones, Food Tech's vice president of sales and marketing. "So we developed the Nations Pride label to provide them with a marketing venue that allowed them to maintain their anonymity."

SureBeam Corporation is currently the only U.S. company dedicated exclusively to developing electron beam and X-ray irradiation systems. SureBeam owns and oper-ates three commercial irradiation centers in the United States, which are located in Sioux City, Iowa, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

In addition to Food Tech and SureBeam, at least 16 companies are known to be working on food irradiation processing or equipment manufacturing. The key players include Ion Beam Applications, Oakbrook, Ill.; Gray Star Inc., Mt. Arlington, N.J.; Revis Services/Puridec, United Kingdom; and Steris/Isomedix, Menton, Ohio.

Prominent academic institutions that are making food irradiation research a high priority include Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, which uses electron beams as its irradiation energy source, and Texas A&M University (TAMU), College Station, Texas. Collaborating with SureBeam Corporation, TAMU opened a $10 million research facility in May 2002, which features electron beam and X-ray energy sources.

"Irradiation is the most extensively researched food treatment process in the history of mankind," Masefield emphasizes.


Radura — international symbol for irradiation
In the United States, all electronically irradiated food, whether processed with gamma rays, electron beams or X-rays must be labeled with the international symbol for irradiation, known as the radura, along with one of several phrases acceptable to FDA and USDA, such as "Treated with Radiation" or "Treated by Irradiation."

If the irradiated product is to be used as an ingredient in a further processed product, the radura symbol or special labeling is not required unless the irradiated ingredient is meat or poultry (i.e. "potatoes, irradiated ground beef, natural flavors").

Retail food service providers are not required to disclose that their food products have been irradiated. Nonetheless, Dairy Queen and Embers America franchises make a point of letting customers know they serve irradiat-ed ground beef. This is accomplished with signs, table tents, tray liners and informational brochures.

"From the beginning, we wanted to be completely upfront and honest with our customers, and to educate them about the increased food safety benefits of irradiated ground beef," says Dean Peters, director of communications with International Dairy Queen. "We needed customer feedback to help determine if selling irradiated hamburgers would be a viable and widely-accepted long-term plan for our company and franchisees. More than 95 percent of the customers we surveyed at our 80 restaurants responded that they are more likely, slightly more likely, or significantly more likely to come back and eat an irradiated hamburger again."

Several food industry groups and other food irradiation proponents are seeking to change the labeling requirements and to allow the use of words such as "cold pasteurization" or "electronic pasteurization" instead of "irradiation" or "radiation," which sound so much like the dreaded "radioactive."

Great Potential

According to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, U.S. households purchased an average of 50 pounds of ground beef in 2001, which was 51 percent of all beef purchased. Ground beef represented 75 percent of all beef servings in commercial restaurants, for a total of some 8.2 billion servings. Moreover, ground beef accounted for 43 percent of all beef purchased by foodservice operators, or 4.42 billion pounds.

Since ground beef is so popular, irradiation of this staple appears to have a dynamic and limitless future.

"Irradiation will become fashionable as retailers and consumers increasingly understand that this process can be used to improve the safety of our food supply without measurably compromising the quality or nutritional value," Steris/Isomedix's Masefield says.

"I predict that by 2010 irradiated beef will be as readi-ly available as pasteurized milk is today," MBC's Eustice says. "Irradiation is destined to become the fourth pillar of public health along with pasteurization, immunization and chlorination."

(1) International Consultative Group on Food Irradiation.

(2) General Accounting Office study, 2000.

(3) Glenn Grimes, agriculture economist, University of Missouri-Columbia.

Linda L. Leake is a freelance journalist who purchases irradiated fresh ground beef at her neighborhood grocery store, Lowe's Foods, Wilmington, N.C.

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