RED-MEAT FIRMS SAID TO BE LINING UP FOR IRRADIATION TESTS

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't likely to issue standards for red-meat irradiation until at least February, but irradiators say potential customers in the meat industry are already beginning to line up for tests of the technology.As reported in SN's Dec. 8 issue, the Food and Drug Administration gave a green light to the irradiation of red meat Dec. 2, a move that answered

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture isn't likely to issue standards for red-meat irradiation until at least February, but irradiators say potential customers in the meat industry are already beginning to line up for tests of the technology.

As reported in SN's Dec. 8 issue, the Food and Drug Administration gave a green light to the irradiation of red meat Dec. 2, a move that answered a longstanding petition from irradiating firm Isomedix, Whippany, N.J. The next step is for the USDA to lay the groundwork for practical implementation.

Meanwhile, the idea of treating red meat with radiation to reduce bacteria is attracting interest. Isomedix, for example, reports that since the FDA's decision was announced it has received several inquiries from meat companies about testing the process.

A spokeswoman for Isomedix would not say how many inquiries the firm has received or from whom. Until the USDA sets standards for irradiating meat, companies like Isomedix that are in the business of sterilizing other products, can court potential customers and experiment with the process on meat, as long as the meat isn't consumed.

USDA officials said it will take them two to three months to develop standards that could then be used for commercial processing.

No processing companies have yet made public their intention to sell irradiated meat, even though there is speculation processors are likely to turn to bacteria-reducing irradiation as a safeguard, given recent health scares over contaminated ground beef.

The Isomedix spokeswoman said that to treat commercial quantities of meat, irradiation facilities would have to be built close to processing plants.

Resistance in the marketplace to irradiation still must be overcome, notwithstanding government approvals and industry interest. The process has been approved for use with fresh chicken and produce for several years, but is scarcely used.

What's more, opponents of irradiation are likely to be preparing to mobilize as well. The Walden, Vt.-based Food & Water consumer advocacy group said it is stepping up its media campaign against the process. Food & Water and other critics of irradiation will continue to argue that food exposed to irradiation can create new, potentially harmful chemicals and also deplete nutrients.

Irradiation uses gamma or X-rays from radioactive material such as cobalt 60 to break down bacteria's chemical bonds and render them unable to replicate. According to the FDA, the levels of irradiation approved for food don't alter the nutritional value of the product, although the treatment is still considered a form of processing.