MAKING THE GRADE

Retailers are discovering that irradiation is -- in the figurative sense -- a chain reaction that's causing changes all the way down the distribution pipeline, to consumers, who have yet to weigh in with their opinion of the finished product.According to retailers and industry observers contacted by SN, irradiation is generally perceived as a sound idea in the effort to satisfy consumer demand for

Retailers are discovering that irradiation is -- in the figurative sense -- a chain reaction that's causing changes all the way down the distribution pipeline, to consumers, who have yet to weigh in with their opinion of the finished product.

According to retailers and industry observers contacted by SN, irradiation is generally perceived as a sound idea in the effort to satisfy consumer demand for safer foods. But they acknowledge all the best arguments in the world won't make it fly if the customer doesn't like it.

"We'll let the customer decide," said Jessica Moser, spokesperson for the Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart. The chain is one of the first major retailers in the nation to announce test marketing of irradiated fresh beef patties in a few stores by the end of this month.

The government's final rule allowing meat treated with radiant energy for sale nationally in retail and food-service outlets went into effect Feb. 23. However, retailers did not leap at the chance to be first on the block to offer the product, even though sentiment in the industry leans strongly toward irradiation since the process promotes a longer product shelf life and reduces the chance of foodborne illness.

"I compliment Wal-Mart. They are probably one of the very few that can do it," said Al Kober, meat merchandising manager for Clemens Markets, Culpsville, Pa., noting that Wal-Mart is big enough to absorb any initial losses if the product fails to immediately catch on with customers, or if groups which oppose irradiation kill sales by mounting noisy protests.

In finalizing the irradiation rules, federal officials noted that the procedure has been used since 1963 to kill insects and microorganisms in spices and to retard spoilage in fruits and vegetables. In 1985, the FDA permitted use of irradiation in pork to kill trichinella spiralis, the cause of trichinosis. It has been legal for poultry since 1992, though as a result of the new red-meat regulations, the old guidelines for poultry have been updated to match the new standards, as well as processing procedures mandated by the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point initiative.

Many chains, like Kober's Clemens stores; Winn-Dixie Stores, Jacksonville, Fla.; Schnuck Markets, St. Louis; and Giant Food, Landover, Md., say they have no immediate plans to offer irradiated meat or poultry. Giant Food spokesman Barry Scher summed up the sentiment of many operators when he said, "We're taking a 'wait-and-see' attitude."

"We're very interested in any technology that provides food safety," said Mickey Clerc, spokesman for Winn-Dixie. "We'll also watch what the consumers want. We'll try to determine if our customers want it first."

Kober, an ardent and vocal supporter of irradiation, believes the tide of public opinion has turned toward the process rather than away, since many major world and national organizations now publicly support irradiation as part of an overall strategy to combat foodborne pathogens.

According to the FDA, ionizing radiation is capable of destroying "significant numbers" of pathogens such as E. coli 0157H:7, listeria monocytogenes, salmonella nontyphoidal, campylobacter spp and toxoplasma gondi. This group is collectively responsible for more than 3.5 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, according to the CDCP, Atlanta. Up to 5,000 deaths result from foodborne illness every year in the U.S., officials there say.

Retailer Clemens has plans to introduce an irradiated product sometime in the near future. "We'll watch what Wal-Mart does and how the mainstream media reacts. However, there are so many positives now and so many supportive groups. The atmosphere has changed. I'm extremely pleased with the media's understanding and positive responses recently," he said.

Although most of the medium-sized and smaller chains are waiting for the giants to bring irradiated meat and poultry to market, at least one independent store in Illinois can't wait to offer it. Pat Corrigan, vice president of the family owned Carrot Top store in Glenview, Ill., said they enjoyed high sales of irradiated poultry for three weeks a few years ago. The store stopped selling it only because they could no longer get it.

"We didn't have a full-service meat counter at the time," explained Corrigan. "At the time, it was only available by the metric ton. We were selling hot chicken wings and things at the time. We cooked it fresh, then froze what was left and cooked that. We sold it as 'Zapped Chicken."'

Customers, who were educated about the irradiation process by the store through associate dialogue and pamphlets, "loved the humor," said Corrigan. The retailer is anxious to get irradiated poultry and beef as soon as possible.

"We feel strongly about irradiation. Our customers have expressed support and we think it's a good tool for the food industry," he said. "There's so much going on with microbial contamination. We have no hesitation. We'd like to make it available on the first shot."

Angela Dansby, media relations manager of the Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago, said the issue of public acceptance "has come a long way. Nothing is holding back the process but the lack of information available to the public or the available information not getting out to the public."

Education will have to be a joint effort by manufacturers, government agencies, trade associations and retailers. The current focus appears to be a combination of educating store associates, pamphlets and labeling, said industry observers.

"Consumers want more labeling. Retailers need to know they should be working on ways to give them more information," said Diane Keeler Bruce, president of DKB Consulting in New York, a firm that tracks consumer trends.

Specifically, all irradiated meat products sold in stores must carry an on-pack green Radura logo, the international symbol for the process. It is made up of two petals in the center symbolizing the food, surrounded by a circle with a broken line symbolizing the rays. Labels must also display the words "treated by irradiation" or "treated with radiation." Some processors are expected to use their own proprietary marks, in addition to the government-required stamps.

The American Dietetic Association, Chicago, supports irradiation for pathogen control, but offers a caveat for the labels. The ADA believes labeling should not be allowed to imply that the food is pathogen-free.

"Food irradiation does not prevent recontamination of the irradiated food," reads an ADA position paper. The group supports incentive labeling "in which a specific pathogen is listed on the label as being reduced." Packers and retailers have to option of including such qualifiers, such as "irradiated to reduce foodborne pathogens."

The process itself actually uses one of two entities to destroy dangerous pathogens -- cobalt or electricity-powered electrons called "E-beams." Irradiation works using an energy pulse to not only kill bacteria that can cause human illness, but those that speed the breakdown of meat fibers. Cost to the consumer is now estimated roughly at 5 cents per pound.

Some groups who are opposed to the process fear it's too new and the effect on humans eating irradiated products might not be known for years.

Believers in the organic method of raising and processing food are among those who question the process. Katherine DiMatteo, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, Greenfield, Mass., said that since irradiation is used at the end of the process to destroy pathogens, it ignores early phases of growing and processing foods.

"Irradiation is not allowed in organic processing at all," DiMatteo said. "We believe it's not natural or necessary. In the first place, we worry about what is used to create the process, disposal of it and its long-term effects on the environment."

The organic method relies on the use of naturally occurring methods of production from the grower to the consumer to keep pathogens from entering the food, said DiMatteo. "So by all those standards, irradiation doesn't meet any of our criteria."

However, in the past few years, groups such as the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization, the American Dietetic Association, the American Medical Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Council on Science and Health, the Institute of Food Technologists and the Scientific Committee of the European Union, among others, have endorsed irradiation.

Clemens' Kober agreed that processors and retailers should not rely on irradiation to solve quality or sanitation problems in handling systems. "It's still garbage in, garbage out. This doesn't replace anything currently being done."

"Food safety is on the top of my mind for consumers, so anything that's been tested and proven we should do," said Mack Graves, president of Latigo, Inc. a Denver, Colo.-based meat marketing firm. "I'm a big proponent of irradiation. However, there will always be consumers who don't want it. I'm in favor of labeling. The consumer has a right to know and choose, and that's fine."

Huisken Meats, a processor with a plant in Chandler, Minn., has developed a line of irradiated, frozen beef patties for retail sale, either under its own name or as private label.

"We recently had our first carton approval back from the FDA," said Cliff Albertson, national branded patty sales manager for Huisken. "By mid-May we will be have frozen, irradiated patties for our customers."

Huisken's customers include some of the country's larger chains. Half a dozen of those have shown great interest in selling the patties and already "two have signed off" for the May debut, Albertson said.

Huisken will have the irradiation done by Titan Scan Corp., which has a plant in Sioux City, Iowa, near Huisken's sales headquarters.Titan uses an electronic or 'e-beam' process, based on electricity rather than cobalt technology. Will Williams, public relations manager for San Diego-based Titan, said their process "takes less than a second with no change in texture, color or taste. We can do 80,000 hamburgers per hour and we're also set to do poultry."

When the product catches on with the public, Titan also expects larger meat processing plants to want their own e-beam treatment facilities, which Titan will install for them. Meanwhile, government agencies have been taking an active role in implementing educational programs.

"We have had terrific cooperation from state departments of health, especially Minnesota's," Albertson continued. "They have provided anything we want, especially public education. I think all the health organizations are strongly behind irradiation. The stores are hesitant, because they haven't quite reached the same level of awareness."

Colorado Boxed Beef, Auburndale, Fla., expects to be the first processor to offer case-ready irradiated fresh beef with a 10-day shelf life.

"Everybody else is going to go frozen," said Steve Saterbo, senior vice president of the company, which also plans a line of frozen beef and frozen chicken irradiated products.

"A lot of retailers are afraid to be first" to sell irradiated meat, Saterbo said. He sent samples of Colorado's New Generation line of fresh, extra-lean irradiated beef in modified atmosphere packaging to clients in mid-February.

By the end of the month, Saterbo had announced the product "will be available in supermarkets in Florida within the next four weeks" at a major chain.

Iowa Beef Processors, Dakota Dunes, S.D., also planned to offer a frozen, electronically irradiated beef patty for test marketing, treated by Titan. IBP spent $100 million in the past five years on capital improvements to enhance food safety. IBP now uses a "Triple Clean" process which includes steam vacuums of beef carcasses, organic acid rinse systems, washes and "a revolutionary steam pasteurization cabinet," said spokesman Gary Mickelson.

"We believe electronic pasteurization provides another layer of food safety protection [and] another tool in our food safety arsenal," he said. While he knows the consumer will make the final decision on the success of irradiated meats, he cited a consumer survey that showed more than 80% of informed consumers said they would buy irradiated meat and poultry.

Believing education is the key to consumer acceptance, IBP will produce informational pamphlets for customers about the benefits of irradiation. Titan staff plans to participate in a public education campaign.

Colorado Beef's product will be irradiated by Food Technology Service, Mulberry, Fla., the country's first irradiation plant, which uses the cobalt process -- a gamma irradiation technique that allows a pallet-load of product to be treated at once.

Food Technology has been doing business since mid-1993, processing poultry for food-service markets in Florida, including the entire Harvestland line of Perdue chicken.

When the FDA ruling allowing irradiation of red meat went into effect in February, Pete Ellis, chief executive officer of Food Technology, said he was still only getting inquiries from retail suppliers, mostly poultry processors.

He expects the idea to take a little longer to catch on with retailers, but doesn't expect any widespread protest from activist consumer groups. Products irradiated by Food Technology have been selling for years through seven major distributors in Florida and promoted through the Florida Restaurant Association.

"There's no consumer resistance that I'm aware of. I've heard arguments, but the debate is over with as far as I'm concerned," he said.