WASHINGTON -- Long tested and much debated, the controversial process of irradiation finally becomes part of the supermarket meat case this week, though a dose of skepticism seems to be keeping it from immediately penetrating the market, according to various sources familiar with the technology.
And, although many retailers worked hard to win approval of the technology, most stores appear to be waiting just a bit longer to stock the new product. Al Kober, meat merchandising manager for Clemens Markets, Kulpsville, Pa., said if the decision were his alone, "We'd have it in the store Feb. 23."
However, Kober, an outspoken advocate of the procedure, said the privately owned, 18-store chain is "wisely being cautious" before adding the beef to the product mix.
"We're anxious to see two things: media response and consumer response," said Kober, who believes "consumers have been ready for six months, it's the retailers who have cold feet."
Irradiation, which not only destroys illness-causing pathogens but also gives fresh products a longer shelf life, is now permitted for use on red meats sold in retail stores when a 60-day waiting period for the final rule ends February 22. The Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, both headquartered here, completed the rule-making process in December.
"A lot of people are afraid to be first," said Steve Saterbo, senior vice president of Colorado Boxed Beef, Auburndale, Fla., a meat-processing firm that supplies retailers. "But we'll be ready to supply stores when and if the orders start coming in."
Industry observers said they believe retailers are waiting for consumer response to irradiated meats in the first group of stores to try them.
"We haven't heard there were any planned activities in relationship to this date," said Dr. Daniel Engeljohn, director of the Regulations Development and Analysis Division of the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service. "I'm not sure the advocacy is as strong as in years past."
The federal rule permits a process known as ionizing radiation "to be used to treat refrigerated or frozen uncooked meat, meat by-products and certain other meat food products to reduce levels of foodborne pathogens and to extend shelf life," according to a summary published by the FSIS.
Ionizing radiation covers two radiant energy processes -- one using cobalt rays and the other based on electricity and called "E-beam" -- to kill pathogens such as Escherichia coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella nontyphoidal, among others. These pathogens are responsible for as many as 5,000 deaths annually, according to federal records.
Irradiation has received endorsements from many international food and health organizations, provided no labels or product claims imply the treated food is pathogen-free.
Although newly approved for red meat, irradiation itself is not new. It has been used to curb insects and micro-organisms in spices and to retard spoilage in certain fruits and vegetables since 1963. In 1985, FDA allowed irradiation to be used to control Trichinella spiralis, the cause of trichinosis, in pork.
The final rule requires all irradiated foods sold in retail stores to be labeled and display "prominently" the Radura, an international symbol for radiation. Labels must also use words to indicate that the product has been "treated by irradiation" or "treated with radiation."
Poultry was already FDA-approved for irradiation, but the new rules amend poultry regulations to match those newly written for red meat and clarify irradiation in respect to Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point requirements.
Food Technology Service, Mulberry, Fla., the first plant licensed in the country to treat food with the cobalt process, has done testing for retail suppliers, but so far "we've only had inquiries," not orders, said Pete Ellis, company president,
Titan Corp., San Diego, recently completed construction on a plant in Sioux City, Iowa, to irradiate beef using the E-beam system.