We're pleased that the article titled “Getting The Upper Hand” (page 28, May BEEF) describes irradiation as a “surefire solution” that does work. The bottom line is that irradiation is the most effective technology we have available to eliminate the scourge of E. coli O157:H7.
Visionary companies such as Schwan's and Omaha Steaks have irradiated 100% of their uncooked ground beef since the technology was approved for use in red meat in 2000. Wegman's, a New York-based retail chain with more than 70 stores, is also a strong proponent of irradiation. We estimate that 15 million lbs. of meat and poultry are irradiated annually in the U.S.
In fact, USDA requires irradiation as a disinfestation tool for exotic produce originating in several Asian and Latin American countries. India expects to export more than 2 million lbs. of irradiated mangoes to the U.S. this year, while irradiated mangosteens from Thailand are now readily available at many supermarkets.
These imports of irradiated produce are in addition to some 8 million lbs. of produce irradiated in Florida and Hawaii for shipment to U.S. markets. Clearly consumers are willingly purchasing irradiated food products and often pay a premium price.
USDA testing showed that in 2001, the percent of E. coli O157:H7 contaminated ground beef was 0.84% of all samples tested. That percent held steady at 0.17% during 2004, 2005 and 2006. In 2007, positive E. coli samples increased to 0.24%. Let's remember that only a small percent of ground beef production is tested. That means millions of pounds of potentially contaminated ground beef still reach the consumer. We can and we must do better.
Recalls are costly and have bankrupted several firms. Outbreaks of sickness decrease sales and yield a bitter harvest of lawsuits to be shared by producers, distributors, grocers and restaurants.
The bigger question, though, is how many more children must end up on kidney dialysis or die before ground beef and other vulnerable foods are routinely irradiated.