Stung by record recalls of tainted meat last year, the US food industry is stepping up the use of new technology to irradiate meat as an extra protection against deadly bacteria such as E. coli and listeria.
Just a small part of the 9 billion pounds of ground beef sold in the United States last year was irradiated, but the amount is growing rapidly, despite concerns voiced by some consumer groups about the unknown long-term effects on health.
Irradiation exposes products to ionizing radiation that kills insects, molds and bacteria. The US government approved irradiation treatment of ground beef in January 2000, and the first batch was processed in May of that year.
Irradiation began to ramp up late last year after the largest meat recall in US history. In October, Pilgrim's Pride Corp. recalled 27.4 million pounds of poultry products because of contamination with listeria, a potentially deadly bacterium. The outbreak that prompted the recall was blamed for killing eight people and making more than 40 sick.
The US Agriculture Department said this week that 60% of the largest US meat plants failed to meet federal food safety regulations for preventing contamination of their products with E. coli. The bacterium causes an estimated 73,000 infections and 61 deaths in the United States each year, according to government data.
Food companies see irradiation as another barrier of protection against bacteria that can cause food-borne illness, especially to protect children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. SureBeam Corp., the largest provider of the technology, said it expects to process between 300 million and 350 million pounds of beef this year, up from about 15 million in 2002.
Irradiation eliminates 99.9% of the pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella and listeria without changing the taste, texture, appearance or nutritional value of the meat, and in spite of its name, the process cannot make food radioactive.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration permits three types of ionizing radiation on foods: gamma rays, high-energy electrons and X-rays. Irradiation is widely used to sterilize many non-food products, including toothbrushes, home-use adhesive bandage strips and surgical tools, although at doses much higher than used for food. Irradiation has been used to kill insects in wheat flour since 1963 and used on common kitchen spices since 1983.
Still, critics say irradiation may deplete vitamins and nutrients, and that irradiated food contains chemical byproducts that may be harmful. They say irradiation is an effort by meat packers and processors to cover up sloppy food-handling processes.
Washington-based consumer group Public Citizen is calling for studies on the long-term effects of treated meat on children. In the meantime, they oppose the use of irradiation for beef supplied by the Agriculture Department for school meals.
Also, if irradiated food is permitted in school lunches, it will not be labeled in the way that irradiated retail food must be, making it impossible for parents to know what school cafeterias are feeding their children. The FDA requires irradiated meat be labeled with a symbol resembling a stylized flower and the words "treated by irradiation."
Meat industry experts said irradiation is no "silver bullet" and proper food handling at home remains critical. Meat can be contaminated by residue from other foods or by utensils used to prepare other meals. Cooking of ground beef to an internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit (72 degrees Celsius) can kill E. coli and listeria, the Beef Council said.
Still, the proven benefits are clearly winning over many consumers and health care officials, and use of the technology is taking off. A nationwide survey conducted by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association found that 48% of Americans would purchase irradiated meat. That response in November 2002 was up from 38% in February.
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