RETAILERS THINKING ABOUT IRRADIATION

WASHINGTON -- As federal regulators prepare to write the rules on red meat irradiation, retailers are thinking ahead to the challenge that faces them, specifically, educating consumers with the aim of easing any reservations they may have about the process.Red meat, which was approved for irradiation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, here, last December, is currently awaiting the finalization

WASHINGTON -- As federal regulators prepare to write the rules on red meat irradiation, retailers are thinking ahead to the challenge that faces them, specifically, educating consumers with the aim of easing any reservations they may have about the process.

Red meat, which was approved for irradiation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, here, last December, is currently awaiting the finalization of labeling regulations by the Food & Drug Administration, also based here, which is expected to publicize its proposed regulations within the next month.

While a number of retailers contacted by SN said they felt that irradiated meat is the wave of the future, they expect that most consumers won't rush to embrace the process. They call consumer education "critical" in ushering in this new phase of food-safety technology, and some noted that it may be a while before widespread acceptance is actually attained.

At the same time, several retailers said that consumer awareness and acceptance of irradiation in general seems to be growing -- an observation that is bolstered by a recently released report from the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute, both based here.

According to the report, titled "Consumer Views on Irradiation" nine out of 10 consumers "feel that protection from disease-causing bacteria is an important reason to buy irradiated foods" and "more than half feel it is very necessary for certain foods to be irradiated, such as poultry, pork and ground beef."

In addition, the report states that approximately four out of every five people surveyed said they would be "somewhat likely or very likely to buy a food product for themselves or their children that carries the label 'Irradiated to kill harmful bacteria."'

These statistics are backed by such retailers as Dave Peterson, meat merchandiser for Redner's Markets, a 24-store chain in Redding, Pa.

"We've gained the consumer's acceptance for using irradiation for produce, and I think it's just a matter of time before meat follows," he said, adding that "We're on a roll here, and we need to just keep moving forward."

"I think the average consumer is very much aware of irradiated foods -- after all, people have been buying potatoes and spices that have been irradiated for years," said another meat executive at a medium-sized eastern chain, who asked not to be identified.

Although Al Kober, meat and seafood merchandising manager at Clemens Markets of Kulpsville, Pa., says his company has no plans to introduce irradiated red meat in the immediate future, the retailer is taking a strong step in that direction with poultry.

The 16-store independent is working in conjunction with Perdue Farms of Easton, Md., and Food Technology Service, an irradiation facility based in Mulberry, Fla., to develop a line of branded irradiated chicken -- possibly the first of its kind in the country, said Kober.

The introduction, however -- the date of which has not yet been set -- illustrates the careful pace retailers are setting in incorporating such products into their regular inventory.

Since poultry was approved for irradiation in the early 1990s, hardly any supermarket companies have opted to carry such a product, stated the report. Kober agreed, saying that consumer education is one of the main obstacles he faces in rolling out the new line.

"Studies show that there's an approximately 50% acceptance rate [of irradiated meat] when it's presented to the consumer without accompanying educational information, but a much higher, 68% figure when it's accompanied by such information," he said.

According to Joe Moore, director of meat operations for O'Malia Food Markets, a seven-store independent in Carmel, Ind., it will also take a strong sense of "need" for consumers to hop on the irradiation bandwagon.

"Despite some of the more publicized stories, most consumers have a pretty high level of confidence in the meat industry, and most are not really expecting to get sick," said Moore, adding that he expects most consumers to remain more loyal to non-irradiated meat. Nevertheless, he admitted that circumstances could change that tide.

"I think if you gave customers a choice between E. coli and irradiated meat, they'd definitely take the irradiated meat," he said.

In an effort to promote the food-safety benefits of irradiation -- it can rid foods of salmonella, camplyobacter, E. coli (including the deadly 0157:H7 strain), and straphylococcus -- the GMA and FMI are urging the FDA to require such wording as "Irradiated for your Protection" on package labels, according to Gene Grabowski, the GMA's vice president of communications.

The FDA has traditionally required only that irradiated products feature a radura -- a green circular emblem with a flower in the center -- which is the international symbol for irradiation, and include the words "Irradiated" or "Irradiation" on a label, according to Grabowski.

Wording such as "Irradiated for your Protection" and "Cold Pasteurization" is preferred by the GMA and FMI because it stresses the food-safety benefits of irradiation, and puts the process into context, said Grabowski.

The required use of such wording would also help create a level of labeling consistency throughout the industry, he said.

As the eve of on-pack labeling approaches, the GMA and FMI have shifted their focus full-time to the education question.

"The scientific questions surrounding irradiation have been answered -- we've gained government approval," said Grabowski. "Now we're faced with more of a marketing question -- how do we get the word out to consumers that irradiation is safe and healthy?

"We want to reach a point where consumers are comfortable with irradiation, want it and are even asking for it," he said.

According to Grabowski, industry proponents of irradiation will likely have to spend the next few years on consumer education efforts before public opinion decidedly shifts. He's confident, however, that the effort will be successful.

"I would say that within the next 10 years -- and certainly within the next 20 -- consumers will be asking for irradiated food," he said. "We'll get to a point where we won't be labeling irradiated food -- we'll be labeling food that isn't irradiated, because consumers will want to be warned."

Grabowski said that his confidence is based in part on the steady rise in consumer acceptance levels toward irradiation, as evidenced by surveys.

During the past three years, surveys conducted every three to six months by the GMA and other industry organizations have shown a consistent increase in consumer acceptance levels and desire for more information on irradiation, said Grobowski.

"If we were to do a new survey tomorrow, I can predict that we would find a higher level of acceptance than we found on our last survey," he said.

In an effort to increase consumer awareness, the GMA recently created a Web site -- www.gmabrands.com -- filled with information on the topic of irradiation, as well as a video tour that includes such stops as an irradiation facility and two restaurants in the country that are using irradiated chicken.

According to Anna Matz, manager of communications at GMA, the Web site is available to everyone, but has been most heavily promoted to the news media, who are seen as conduits to consumers.

In addition, the GMA and the FMI have mailed thousands of copies of the recently released report on irradiation to educators, food manufacturers and retailers throughout the industry, according to Grabowski.