The ‘beef’ on irradiated meat

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SALEM, Ohio – The beef checkoff’s now-famous slogan may have some competition: “Beef and Electricity. It’s what’s for dinner.”

Beef and electricity may sound like a strange combination for supper, but area grocery stores don’t think so.

Tops Friendly Market and Giant Eagle stores started selling this strange combination, better known as irradiated meat, Jan. 12.

Although supporters and opponents of irradiation disagree on its definition, what it boils down to is electricity killing potentially harmful pathogens in meat. This bacteria includes E. coli, salmonella and listeria.

Not the first. Other grocers across the country have slowly began carrying the meat since the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the process in 1997. Nevertheless, this is the first time many Ohio and Pennsylvania shoppers have seen the meat on their grocers’ shelves.

So far consumers aren’t flocking to the irradiated meat section.

Tops spokesperson Stefanie Zakowicz thinks this will change.

With more consumer education about the irradiation process and people becoming more concerned about food safety, she thinks the demand will increase.

“As consumers become more confident with this, they’ll want it in other meat products, too – poultry and seafood both,” Zakowicz said.

Consumer demand. Both grocery stores are carrying only a small amount of irradiated meat until they determine consumer demand.

Shoppers can find the beef near the meat counter. The package says “irradiated” on the label and there is a small radura, the symbol of irradiation, on the back of the package.

Both stores have educational information about irradiation at the point of sale.

It costs 5 percent to 10 percent more than regular ground chuck and ground beef.

The beef is treated with SureBeam Corporation’s electron beam technology.

All in the name. One concern is that the term “irradiate” connotes a negative image of the process and may deter customers from buying the meat.

Rob Borella, Giant Eagle’s director of corporate communications, said there has been a debate within the industry about changing the name, but he said the term is more accepted now because of educational efforts.

Changing the name now may do more harm than good and set back the education process, he said.

Controversy. Although the technology was approved by the Food and Drug Administration and grocery stores are carrying the product, not everyone is happy about the process.

Proponents like SureBeam Corporation say the system uses “ordinary electricity” and “electron beam technology.”

On the other hand, consumer advocate groups like Public Citizen, define it as “food exposed to large doses of ionizing radiation” and the “electron beam equivalent to millions of chest X-rays.”

In its final ruling in December 1997, the Food and Drug Administration defined irradiation as: “…the safe use of a source of radiation to treat refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat… to control foodborne pathogens and extend product shelf-life.”

Cautions. Despite the Food and Drug Administration’s approval, Public Citizen cautions customers that long-term studies have not been done to determine the effects of eating irradiated food. The group is also concerned about the loss of vitamins that may occur during irradiation.

The FDA has tested the safety and technology of irradiation for more than 40 years and “has found irradiation to be safe under a variety of conditions and has approved its use for many foods.”

“The process may cause a small loss of nutrients but no more so than with other processing methods such as cooking, canning or heat pasteurization,” according to an FDA release.

Food safety. The Food and Drug Administration and grocery stores stress that irradiation is not a substitute for food safety. The same sanitary food-handling practices used with non-irradiated meat still need to be followed.

“Bacteria can still be introduced once the seal is broken and the product is home,” Zakowicz said. “It is not fail-safe.”

This food-safety handling is what concerns groups like Public Citizen, who say irradiation is a mask for food-safety problems, such as unsanitary farms, slaughterhouses and food-processing methods.

Spices, produce. This isn’t the first time irradiated products have been on the market. It has been used for years to control contamination in spices, fruits, vegetables and astronauts’ food in space.

(You can contact Kristy Hebert at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)


Related links:

Food and Drug Administration: www.fda.gov/opacom/catalog/irradbro.html

Public Citizen: www.citizen.org/publications/release.cfm?ID=7071

www.topsmarkets.com

www.gianteagle.com

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