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RETAILERS CHEW OVER EFFECT OF RED-MEAT IRRADIATION APPROVAL

Retail opinions are mixed as to what the Food and Drug Administration's approval of irradiation for red meat will mean in the real world of meat retailing.Irradiation proponents and nay-sayers from the retail community expressed a wide range of concerns in interviews shortly after the approval was announced, including when and how much irradiated meat might actually be available to retailers and how

Retail opinions are mixed as to what the Food and Drug Administration's approval of irradiation for red meat will mean in the real world of meat retailing.

Irradiation proponents and nay-sayers from the retail community expressed a wide range of concerns in interviews shortly after the approval was announced, including when and how much irradiated meat might actually be available to retailers and how consumers can be better educated about its benefits and drawbacks. The issues of cost, shrink, signage and labelling will be adressed in next week's SN.

The meat executives generally shared at least one expectation: that irradiated meat is still a long way from becoming a commonplace element in the supermarket meat case, let alone a dominant one.

Use of irradiation on red meat could help bring back a measure of confidence to a wary meat industry, still reeling from this summer's food-borne illness outbreaks, said Al Kober, the meat buyer and merchandiser at Clemens Markets in Kulpsville, Pa.

Kober said the FDA's recent approval gives irradiation the credibility it will need in the marketplace. "Done properly, we all have something to gain because it's a definite move toward improving food safety," he said.

"In the poultry and meat area it's clearly a food-safety issue," said Jim Corrigan, president of the single-unit Carrot Top operation, Glenview, Ill., which has been carrying irradiated poultry and produce on and off since 1992.

Corrigan noted that when he carried irradiated poultry, his customers "weren't buying it because it's the best quality poultry, [but because it's] simply the safest."

Corrigan, virtually alone among retailers as a purveyor of irradiated fresh foods, told SN in an earlier interview (see SN's Oct. 27 issue) that although irradiated chicken had sold very well when it was available, he hadn't been able to get retail packaging for it since 1994.

Ron Shernak, director of meat operations at Rice Epicurean Markets, Houston, said he anticipates irradiated red meat will eventually be abundant in the marketplace.

"I think that we are going to see an awful lot of [irradiated meat] come on-stream," he said. He added that although his chain hadn't yet discussed whether it would stock irradiated products, "My guess is that we would carry it."

Kober of Clemens was basically upbeat about the products' commercial viability. Given the opportunity to purchase irradiated meat, "People will be willing to eat meat with a little more confidence, and that will improve sales," he said.

The technology has the potential to offer clear benefits to retailers, he said. "It'll probably improve shrink. Anytime you get rid of bacteria you improve shelf life; you could double it." Indeed, Kober said, he saw irradiation as "a marketing tool that can be used positively."

However, despite his belief in the benefits of irradiation, Kober also cautioned the process shouldn't be viewed as a cure-all for the woes of the meat industry.

"The emphasis has to be that all food-safety factors need to remain in place. [And] it's not going to replace proper handling," he said.

Carrot Top's Corrigan said he anticipates increased red-meat sales overall, once irradiated meat hits the market. "If [meat] follows poultry and produce, I would anticipate that our sales would go up."

Corrigan has reported that when he has had them to sell, irradiated products have been extremely profitable.

Not all the retailers interviewed by SN were enthusiastic about the prospect of offering irradiated meat. However, some of them work for operators that specialize in natural and organic foods.

"I don't see it being a viable [solution to food-safety concerns] right now," said Ron Cox, the meat merchandiser at the Seattle-based Puget Consumers Co-op. "I don't know how anyone could promote it because of the stigma [attached to it].

"I don't think it's going to catch on real quick," Cox continued. "We are not going to go out of our way to bring it in."

"I am definitely not going to carry it," said Theo Weening, the Mid-Atlantic region meat and poultry coordinator for Whole Foods Market, Austin, Texas. "I tried some irradiated meat and it tasted and smelled different," Weening added.

After the FDA announcement, Whole Foods managers immediately put up signs in their meat departments alerting customers to the FDA's approval of irradiation and what it means. The information was provided to Whole Foods by Denver-based natural-beef supplier Coleman Natural Meats.

After offering an explanation of irradiation, the informational bulletins went on to explain that Coleman had no intention of irradiating its meat products because, it said, "We believe that wholesome, safe, high-quality product can be produced without having to rely on irradiation."

Weening said of the communications alert, "It's in all the stores and it has been generating a lot of interest. People are really worried about it." He noted he'd gotten a lot of phone calls from shoppers.

While Whole Foods will not carry irradiated products, however, Weening said he does not see the development as a negative for his business. "I think the [FDA's] approval is going to push our product more," he said. "Sales on natural meats have been going up."

"I doubt I would carry it," said Suann Suggs, the general manager of Norman Bros. Produce, Miami, a single-unit 6,000-square-foot store where produce accounts for roughly 70% of the store dollar and natural foods are a strong draw. "I don't think there would be much consumer interest here. Our customers are not pleased with irradiated anything."

Even Carrot Top's Corrigan said the FDA approval wasn't likely to change the opinions of consumers who already had doubts about the safety of the process.

To Kober, such a situation means "What we do in terms of [consumer] education is critical."

Although it already has the FDA's approval, the process of actually making irradiated meat available on store shelves may be a lengthy and complex one.

"I would be surprised if you see anything in the full-blown form in less than the next four to five years," said Kober.

Corrigan thought the timeframe was much shorter. He said the six-to eight-month time lag between when irradiated poultry was approved by the FDA and made available for sale could be used as a benchmark for meat.

Whenever it appears, many retailers agreed, the first cut of meat to be irradiated is likely to be ground beef.

"Ground meat is where it's going to start because that's where the biggest problem is," said Kober.

"Ground beef really screams for it," Corrigan commented, while the need to irradiate other whole-muscle cuts of meat is probably not so great.

Before any of these questions are answered, however, "We will need to wait until a major packer is willing to get behind it," noted Kober. He said when that would occur would depend on how high a priority on packers' lists implementing irradiation actually is.

Although Corrigan said Carrot Top would carry irradiated meat, the quality stocked "would depend on the supply we can get."

Some retailers interviewed expressed doubts as to how much choice they would actually have -- once irradiation was being used by their packers -- about carrying irradiated products.

"If our packers are doing it, then they will do it to all the meats," said Milton Lister, director of meat purchasing at Key Food, Brooklyn. "Seventy-five percent to 80% of meat comes from big packers. What am I going to do, tell them I don't want it?"

"As long as they leave [retailers] a choice, I don't think you are going to see a lot of it on the market," said the PCC's Cox.