ROCHESTER, N.Y. -- Wegmans Food Markets last week announced the rollout of its own private-label, irradiated, fresh ground beef.
It's the first supermarket chain in the United States to introduce this product under its own label, Wegmans said in a statement. The launch, timed for the beginning of grilling season, came just a year after the chain began offering Fairview Farms brand, irradiated frozen ground beef patties. The private-label, fresh product's debut is directly related to positive feedback the chain got from customers about the frozen patties, officials said.
The private-label fresh ground, irradiated beef will hit the meat departments at all Wegmans stores by Memorial Day weekend, they said. In one-pound and three-pound packages, it will be available in 90% lean and 80% lean versions, and will sell for between 10 cents and 30 cents a pound more than regular fresh ground beef, which the chain also will continue to carry.
In taste, quality, and nutrition, the irradiated product is identical to ordinary fresh ground beef. The key difference is food safety, according to Wegmans' officials.
"For several years, we've been teaching that the only way to be sure of killing harmful bacteria is to cook ground beef to 160 degrees and take its temperature," said Danny Wegman, president of the 62-unit, family-owned chain, in the statement. "That is still our advice for customers who buy ordinary fresh ground beef. However, we've worked for years to bring a safer alternative to market, and we believe our new, irradiated fresh ground beef is the right answer."
The irradiated product has been treated with electrical energy so that bacteria that can cause serious or fatal foodborne illness -- such as E. coli 0157:H7 or salmonella -- are rendered harmless. Therefore, customers who use Wegmans irradiated fresh ground beef can cook burgers the way they like them, without food-safety concerns, the statement said.
While consumer awareness of the irradiation process with its potential safety benefits is growing, the technology is not universally accepted or understood. Some consumers are suspicious of it.
For that reason, retailers for the most part have been reluctant to be pioneers in marketing irradiated, fresh meat, even though major public health organizations support the use of irradiation on food, a spokeswoman for the American Meat Institute told SN.
"This is a real positive development," said Janet Riley, vice president of public affairs for AMI, Arlington, Va. "The fact that they're getting products out there in the retail market is exciting. It will have a snowball effect," she said, adding that Wegmans' new product line will force other retailers to take notice, and raise consumer awareness.
Wegmans, in literature directed at consumers, explains that it is electrical energy, not nuclear energy, that's used in the irradiation of food. To further educate consumers about the process, the company has posted questions and answers about irradiation under the heading of "food safety" on its Web site. And in a statement prepared for the consumer press, the company explains the process, as it applies to its private-label irradiated fresh ground beef:
The beef supplier trims the meat to Wegmans' specifications. Beef carcasses are cleaned, washed, and steam-pasteurized before the meat is ground and packed.
The ground meat is then packed in tightly sealed packages, called "rolls," and shipped under refrigeration to a facility in Chicago, where the rolls are irradiated with the SureBeam process, which uses electrical energy, not nuclear, to destroy harmful bacteria. This process generates no radioactive or nuclear waste, and does not make the irradiated food radioactive. This process has been endorsed by all major health and food-safety organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.
As the rolls are scanned under the beam, a stream of accelerated electrons approaching the speed of light passes through the meat. The electrons kill bacteria or destroy their ability to reproduce and cause illness.
The irradiated rolls are then shipped under refrigeration to Wegmans stores.
Until recently, irradiated ground beef was only being sold frozen from the frozen meat case, but earlier this year some supermarkets in Illinois began testing sales of irradiated, fresh ground beef, and those stores drew some protesters, including a national consumer advocacy organization founded by Ralph Nader. Such groups have raised questions about the safety of irradiation, but the U.S. Food & Drug Administration approved the process for beef in 1997, followed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with its approval in 2000.
And for the most part, consumers are accepting of irradiation for meat, said AMI's Riley.
"From all the research I've seen, I think consumers are ready and eager to embrace this product," she said. "I suspect you'll see it grow." AMI represents meat and poultry packers and processors.
At this time, the fresh ground beef, the Fairview Farms frozen patties, and a few produce items in selected stores are the only irradiated foods Wegmans is carrying, and all of them can be identified by their labels and/or in-store signs, Wegmans points out on its Web site.