WASHINGTON (FNS) -- Food-industry organizations are getting ready in coming months to market the idea that food irradiation is safe to consumers, hoping to reverse poor consumer demand that has made the industry reluctant to explore irradiation's practical applications.
The good news is irradiation is gaining increased public support as a tool to kill bacteria and increase the safety of food -- particularly perishables -- in the distribution pipeline.
Among its supporters is former Food and Drug Administration commissioner Dr. David Kessler, who spoke at a recent all-day conference on irradiation organized by the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, the Science and Public Policy Institute and the American Farm Bureau Federation.
Kessler drew a parallel between the public's shunning pasteurized milk at the turn of the century and its hesitation about buying irradiated food now. He noted another more recent analogy, also: the public's initial mistrust of microwave ovens more than two decades ago.
"The science today says, unequivocally, that irradiation is safe," said Kessler, who is now dean of Yale University School of Medicine.
"For one reason or another, concern still exists about this technology. There are basic misconceptions, and it's our job to educate," he said.
That should be music to the ears of food-trade representatives, who have spent months drumming up the nerve to confront head-on consumers' confusion or lack of interest in the process.
"Food irradiation will save lives. But before we can use this marvelous technology, we have to lay the proper groundwork so consumer doubts are laid to rest," said C. Manly Molpus, GMA president and chief executive officer.
Armed with two recent reports about irradiation, supermarket and food-processing officials say they now have a better understanding about what it might take to convince consumers irradiated food is just as safe as pasteurized food, and that it is needed to protect the public's health.
Irradiation as a means to kill harmful bacteria on food -- particularly on ground meat -- has come to the fore after several high-profile food-safety scares. Although the FDA has approved irradiation treatments for most food, so far there's been little movement toward using the process, or even constructing the irradiation plants needed to make it feasible.
Supermarket and food-processing officials cite poor consumer demand as a reason for nonaggressive promotion of the technology.
Mike Wright, chairman and chief executive officer at Supervalu, Minneapolis, said retailers have been reluctant to promote irradiated food largely because consumers appear confused about the technology's safety.
For example, consumers often erroneously believe that irradiated food has been exposed to nuclear radiation and thus is tainted, or that it might be less nutritional or less tasty because of being treated, Wright said.
"Our contact with consumers gives us a special sensitivity to their concerns," he said at the conference. "Opponents of the technology have taken advantage of this sensitivity by targeting retailers who sell irradiated products. This puts retailers in an extremely uncomfortable position."
According to recent surveys by FMI and the International Food Information Council, when consumers are advised of the bacteria-killing abilities of the process, they want to know more about the technology. The research also showed they are less interested in buying irradiated produce or other food because the technology extends the shelf life.
Sixty-seven percent of consumers surveyed in the FMI study considered poultry to be the number-one candidate for irradiation, followed closely by pork and ground beef. The FMI study also found 91% of those surveyed didn't consider irradiation a replacement for proper cooking and handling of food to protect against bacterial contamination.
Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, Minnesota Department of Health's chief epidemiologist for acute diseases, said it's difficult to discern irradiation's effects on reducing food-borne illnesses, but it's bound to make a difference. Food safety improves "every time you take out a risk," said Osterholm, who also spoke at the conference.
Osterholm estimated that in Minnesota, with 4.6 million people, there are about 6.1 million cases of digestive illnesses annually, about half of which he figures are caused by food-borne pathogens. The occurrence of bacteria in food -- including new varieties of bacteria -- is also increasing, he said.
Like other speakers, Osterholm said irradiation shouldn't be viewed as a final line of defense in preventing food-borne illnesses. In addition to farmers, processors and retailers being vigilant about food safety, consumers need to be told more forcefully about their role in preventing food-borne illnesses, he said.
"Consumers must assume part of the responsibility. We've got to be more direct about that message," he said.
Tim Hammonds, FMI president and chief executive officer, said it will take time for irradiation to become a common and accepted food-safety practice.
"Fortunately, food irradiation will evolve over time, giving all of us opportunities to deal with the introduction of this technology as part of an orderly process. It will take time for processors and equipment suppliers to meet the standards for line speeds we need to make food irradiation an affordable reality," he said.