THE RIGHT TO IRRADIATE

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food and Drug Administration will soon give a thumbs up for meat processors to use bacteria-killing irradiation on red meat, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.Glickman's forecast of the FDA's pending approval of irradiation -- given at a recent Capitol Hill hearing on food safety -- came as no surprise to food-safety watchers. The FDA has already

WASHINGTON (FNS) -- The Food and Drug Administration will soon give a thumbs up for meat processors to use bacteria-killing irradiation on red meat, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman.

Glickman's forecast of the FDA's pending approval of irradiation -- given at a recent Capitol Hill hearing on food safety -- came as no surprise to food-safety watchers. The FDA has already approved irradiation for poultry, produce and spices, signaling that government scientists would likely do the same for beef, lamb and other red meat.

"Forty countries around the world have approved irradiation, so has the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association. I think at this point, it's more of a procedural issue with the FDA," said Gary Webber, executive director of regulatory affairs with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here.

Despite such endorsements, irradiation in and outside the United States has not approached widespread commercial use. Instead, it has been the focus of vocal opposition from consumer groups worried about food being subjected to technology used in human X-rays.

The FDA has been weighing its decision on irradiating meat since 1993, when Isomedix, Whippany, N.J., asked for permission to use the process. The company has 12 irradiating facilities in North America. Although its primary business is sterilizing medical supplies, it also irradiates some exotic Hawaiian fruit.

Isomedix wants to be able to irradiate at 4.5 kiloGray for refrigerated meat and 7 kiloGray for frozen. The dosage is much higher than the FDA approved for killing bacteria on poultry in 1990. That level was set at no more than 3 kiloGrays.

An increase in kiloGrays for meat is needed because of the different composition of the product, said George Pauli, director of the FDA's Division of Product Policy. However, he said, the heavier exposure doesn't mean the meat absorbs harmful radioactive material. Rather, irradiating involves exposing meat to light generated by radioactive material.

FDA's consideration of Isomedix' petition has intensified since the record recall in August of 25 million pounds of ground beef from Hudson Foods, which was feared contaminated with the virulent E. coli 0157:H7. "It's my highest priority," Pauli said.

The FDA began seriously looking at irradiation during the 1980s when it approved its use on spices. Years earlier it approved the process for pork in low doses in order to kill

the trichinosis-causing worm, an application that never was widely used and has since become irrelevant. The approved irradiation dosage for pork is considered too low to adequately kill bacteria.

The FDA next approved the treatment of produce -- irradiation not only can kill bacteria, but it can also retard product maturation. Poultry then followed.

For Peter Ellis, president of Food Technology Service, Mulberry, Fla., the one irradiating company in the United States dedicated exclusively to treating food, the renewed attention being given irradiation hasn't translated into increased business.

Ellis launched his company in anticipation of FDA approval of irradiating chicken, but seven years later the facility is only operating at 10% of capacity.

Ellis said once the FDA approves meat irradiation, coupled with increased attention being given by the food industry to the process, it could translate into more food being irradiated.

The NCBA's Webber said what's lacking is a consumer-education campaign about irradiation's safety and effectiveness in killing potentially deadly bacteria, which has been pegged largely as a problem in ground-meat products. The meat industry is supporting irradiation as a final step in a host of food-safety precautions already being undertaken or planned.

The industry has been reluctant to start irradiating, largely because of the lack of consumer demand. "It seems like no one wants to be first.The food industry needs to work together to fund a consumer-education program," Webber said.

As with poultry, monitoring the irradiation of red meat would fall under the purview of the USDA, which already inspects slaughterhouses and meat processors.

Meat companies see irradiation as a final step in processing and an addition to a host of steps undertaken to reduce bacteria. Irradiation for red meat would likely be reserved for ground meat and sausage, where bacteria can get mixed in and not be killed when cooked. Whole meat isn't considered a likely irradiation candidate since bacteria typically stay on the surface and are quickly killed by cooking. The irradiation of produce falls into the regulatory territory of the FDA.