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WASHINGTON (FNS) --- Food retailers and suppliers applauded the Food and Drug Administration's long-awaited move last week to approve irradiation of meat products and geared up to help make the practice a reality.The industry is prepearing to work with the government on establishing irradiation procedures and on promoting further research into the process."Now the real work can start and the market

WASHINGTON (FNS) --- Food retailers and suppliers applauded the Food and Drug Administration's long-awaited move last week to approve irradiation of meat products and geared up to help make the practice a reality.

The industry is prepearing to work with the government on establishing irradiation procedures and on promoting further research into the process.

"Now the real work can start and the market will decide if this is a useful enhancement to product safety," said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the National Meat Association, Oakland, Calif.

Now that the FDA has acted, it's up to the Food Safety and Inspection Service to draft a proposed rule for plant procedures. An FSIS spokeswoman said the agency's goal is to have a proposal within 60 to 90 days.

After that, a public comment period could take up to 90 days, then implementation of the final rule could occur within 90 days of the end of the comment period. "We expect to see a final rule next year," the FSIS spokeswoman said.

The supermarket and beef industries almost universally backed government approval of the irradiation process, and view irradiation as a useful tool in boosting product safety. Irradiation, sometimes called cold pastuerization, is seen as the only technology other than thorough cooking that can greatly reduce all harmful bacteria on raw foods. Slammed by recent E. coli 0157:H7 contaminations that have sickened consumers and spurred record recalls of ground beef, the red-meat industry has long sought government permission to irradiate.

"FDA's approval of irradiation to destroy bacteria on red meats is a victory for consumers and the red-meat industry," said J. Patrick Boyle, president and chief executive officer of the American Meat Institute, Arlington, Va.

Timothy M. Hammonds, president and chief executive officer of the Food Marketing Institute here, said that with the FDA's authorization, additional research and development of irradiation can be pursued by industry. "This was the last barrier to pursuit of the research and development that we needed. This will be a major step forward."

John R. Cady, president of the National Food Processors Association here, lauded the FDA decision and noted irradiation had been proven a safe process by groups ranging from the World Health Organization to the American Medical Association. He added that more than 35 countries have approved irradiation as a safe food-treatment technology.

Mucklow said the availability of irradiation was important for the beef industry because many consumers like their beef undercooked, something that rarely is considered when eating poultry. Noting irradiation would not replace safe handling practices, Mucklow said, "Since we can't be watching everybody's kitchen, this will ensure that every hamburger is safe.

Although industry support of the FDA's approval was strong, some consumer groups expressed concern about the safety of the process. Michael Colby, the executive director of Food & Water, a food-safety activist group based in Walden, Vt., said the use of irradiation "raises many serious health and environmental concerns. Irradiated beef has never been proven safe to eat, and the irradiation of food fails to address the root causes of our food-safety crisis."

Colby's comments highlight the potential consumer resistance to the practice, which is expected to be the biggest obstacle to widespread irradiation of red meat.

The FMI's Hammonds stressed the importance of listening to consumers so the industry is "sensitive to their concerns about process and package labeling."

The FDA authorized irradiation of poultry five years ago and the practice has not been embraced. A spokesman for the National Broiler Council here blamed the lack of irradiation on the absence of consumer demand and interest. "It's something the industry continues to evaluate," said National Broiler Council spokesman Richard

Lobb. "When we see an interest, we'll keep our options open. Gary weber, executive director of regulatory affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association here, speculated that because the poultry industry was the first to receive FDA endorsement of irradiation, it was hesitant to tackle the marketplace with irradiated products on its own. "No one wants to be first," Weber said. Now that red-meat irradiation has been given the go-ahead, it's likely more irradiated products could move to the shelves, he said. "Perhaps a collective effort on behalf of all food products would work."

John Block, president of the Food Distributors International, Fall Church Va., hailed the FDA decision but cautioned irradition may not become wide-spread in the short term. "It will be a gradual process," he said.

"A lot of questions have yet to be answered, such as when the process it will be used."

The costs of irradiation also have to be considered, Block said, noting estimates have put the cost as low as a few cents.

Whatever the expense, it will be passed on to the consumers. "It's not free. Consusmers will pay the price and the demand has to be there for irradiation to be used."

C. Manly Molpus, president and CEO of the Grocery Manufacturers of America here, said the industry should now turn its attention to "helping consumers understand the benefits of irradiation for themselves and their families. The federal government is in a unique position to lead this effort as part of its overall food safety initiative.

Thomas Zaucha, president and CEO of the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., said, "The FDA is well-known for its diligent and thorough scientific approach to matters of this sort, and I am confident that American consumers, who have long been accustomed to using microwaves for cooking at home, will welcome the use of irradiation as an added protection against food-borne illness."

The FDA's ruling was on a petition from Isomedix, Whippany, N.J., that has been pending since August 1993. An industry-mounted campaign stimulated congressional pressure for an FDA decision. Rep. Greg Ganske, R-Iowa, inserted a provision in an FDA reform package recently signed into law that required the FDA to act on the petition within 60 days. Members of the House and Senate Agriculture committees also weighed in, urging Dan Glickman, Department of Agriculture secretary, and Michael A. Friedman, lead deputy commissioner for operations at the FDA, to take action.

The FDA based its decision on an examination of the chemical effects of radiation, the effect on nutrient content of irradiated products, potential toxicity concerns and the effects on microorganisms on irradiated products. The FDA previously approved the use of irradiation for pork to control the trichina parasite, and on fruits, vegetables and grains to control insects. It also has approved the use of irradiation on spices, seasonings and dry enzymes used in food processing to control microorganisms. The FSIS likely will review the poultry irradiation rule in drafting the rule for red meat. It also will address the descriptive labeling issue.

How It Works

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. It is sometimes likened to cold pasteurization, since it employs a cold energy source that has a similar effect as that of heat on milk.

Food to be irradiated is placed in aluminum carriers and moved into the irradiation room, circulated around the radiation source and brought out to the unloading area.