WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has given the meat industry the long awaited green-light to irradiate meat products to reduce or eliminate E. coli 0157:H7 and other hazardous foodborne pathogens like Listeria monocytogenes and salmonella.
Several major meat processors have already installed equipment in anticipation of the final rule, to be published in the Federal Register this week and set to take effect 60 days later. Covered under the regulations are raw and frozen meat and meat products such as ground beef, steaks, and pork chops
"While there is no single silver bullet to cure all food safety problems, irradiation has been shown to be both safe and effective," said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. "USDA is committed to approving new technologies that offer industry additional tools to help produce even safer food."
Meat products treated with radiant energy must display the internationally recognized radura symbol on all retail packages, as well as the word "irradiation" on the label. Bulk product, such as hamburger sold out of service cases in the meat department, are required to have the radura and verbage posted at the point of sale, according to federal officials. Though industry officials initially opposed both measures -- out of fear that uninformed consumers would react negatively -- they are nevertheless pleased to have gained the option to sell irradiated meat.
"This is a long-awaited day for consumers and for the meat industry," said J. Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, Reston, Va. "Irradiation will be a useful tool in the food safety toolbox because it provides an extra margin of safety along with the many technologies that are now used routinely."
"It has been two years since the FDA's approval of the use of irradiation on read meat," said Brian Folkerts, vice president of government affairs at the National Food Processors Association. "At that time, USDA promised prompt action to propose a rule enabling meat processors to begin using this important food safety tool. We're gratified that they've finally issued it, but it's been along time coming."
In February, the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service began soliciting viewpoints about amending meat-inspection regulations to permit the use of ionizing radiation for treating uncooked meats. The tremendous response prompted the agency to extend the comment period from the end of April to mid-June -- a move industry officials said merely prolonged the process.
The Food and Drug Administration, which shares oversight of the food processing industry, had approved the procedure for red meats in December 1997. Irradiation has been approved for poultry since 1992, though its use has been limited to certain products, due to concern over public reaction. It has also been used on select fruits and vegetables, as well as spices and grains. Industry officials believe irradiation's approval for red meat -- the most popular protein purchased by shoppers -- will finally turn the tide of any public resistance.
To that end, the trade is pushing federal regulators to approve the process for hot dogs, lunch meats and other ready-to-eat products. Boyle urged the USDA to quickly approve irradiation for all other types of meats. "We cannot wait another five years, as we have for this rule," he said.
Folkerts agreed: "It is our hope that a growing number of irradiated products become available to consumers."
Officials at the Grocery Manufacturers of America said the next important step for enhancing acceptance of irradiation is a high-level consumer education campaign.
"The USDA's approval for irradiation of meat products gives us another important tool in our food safety arsenal," said Dr. Stacey Zawel, GMA vice president of scientific and regulatory policy. "The major task now for government agencies and the food industry is to provide fact-based, user friendly information on irradiation."