IRRADIATED FRESH MEAT WIDENS PRESENCE

NEW YORK -- It's taken more than two years, but retailer acceptance of irradiation appears to have jumped a major hurdle in becoming more of an everyday presence in the fresh meat case.The decision by several regional chains to begin stocking treated, fresh red meat reached a crescendo when IBP Fresh Meats announced it was introducing a line of case-ready ground beef trays, patties and chubs. IBP,

NEW YORK -- It's taken more than two years, but retailer acceptance of irradiation appears to have jumped a major hurdle in becoming more of an everyday presence in the fresh meat case.

The decision by several regional chains to begin stocking treated, fresh red meat reached a crescendo when IBP Fresh Meats announced it was introducing a line of case-ready ground beef trays, patties and chubs. IBP, a division of Springdale, Ark.-based Tyson Foods, is the nation's largest beef processor.

At the same time, Lowes Foods, Pathmark Stores and D'Agostino Supermarkets announced they were adding fresh irradiated lean ground beef products to their meat cases -- while officials at Publix supermarkets said they planned to introduce a line of irradiated frozen ground beef and chicken early next year; fresh meats could be added in the future, they said.

With much fanfare, Wegmans Food Markets in May became the first retailer to offer irradiated fresh ground beef products under a private label. Wegmans officials reported initial sales were strong.

"It's going to grow," Nicholas D'Agostino Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of Larchmont, N.Y.-based D'Agostino Supermarkets, told SN. "I see consumers coming in specifically to buy it."

Extremely limited in supermarkets, irradiated products in general have not been a major sales driver. Just under 13% of supermarkets carry such foods, according to a 2002 survey by the Food Marketing Institute, Washington. But, now that the idea of irradiation has lost some of initial shock value, and consumers begin to focus on the food-safety question, shoppers may become more willing to buy and consume the products, said Morton Satin, executive director of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association, at Texas A&M University, College Station.

He said as more retailers add irradiated meats to their case, their competitors will have no choice but to introduce their own comparable products, propelling volume, and potentially, sales.

"We were working with misinformation when we thought consumers did not want irradiated food," said Satin, who's been following the food irradiation debate since 1985.

Early research conducted at the University of California-Davis showed consumers have no real inhibitions about irradiated food, particularly when they understand why the food underwent irradiation, he said, comparing the resistance to the early objections people had to pasteurization.

"This happens with any new technology," he said.

Though endorsed by many public health organizations, irradiation has opponents. In the past, retailers faced off with consumer groups who questioned the long-term health effect of irradiated foods on the body. Protesters in some markets set up public demonstrations outside stores. Last month's announcements did not trigger any immediate protests, though at least one consumer group said they would begin picketing retailers selling treated beef.

In their preliminary discussions, D'Agostino officials focused on "how we protect the consumer and [avoid] abuse by the anti-irradiation lobby," D'Agostino said. The retailer decided to contract with the SureBeam Corp., one of the top food irradiators in the country.

Meat department managers at the chain's 23 stores in the New York City area took part in training programs that brought them up to date on irradiated meat, after which they were given instructions to train their employees. SureBeam assisted the company with the training, said Mary Moore, director of public affairs for D'Agostino.