The hope for widespread irradiation of the nation’s ground beef supply received a boost this week with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of the use of irradiation immediately on spinach and iceberg lettuce. But it was a disappointing baby step as the agency apparently acted just enough to mollify critics of its inaction and keep critics of the technology at bay.

The FDA action – which only applies to spinach and iceberg lettuce and doesn't require irradiation; it just permits it – was in response to a petition submitted nine years ago to permit irradiation for pathogen reduction on fruits and vegetables and other ready-to-eat (RTE) foods. The FDA has allowed irradiation of produce at a lower level since 1986, which targeted insects and mold; the new level can destroy pathogens on the food.

In 2006, a contaminated spinach incident resulted in three deaths and sparked renewed interest in the pathogen reduction. Two months later, the nation was rocked with news of 100 reported illnesses caused by bacterial contamination of lettuce. And FDA still sat on its hands.

The “leafy greens” issues, however, managed to put food safety and irradiation front and center. Legislators demanded to know why FDA hadn't taken action on a petition filed eight years before to permit irradiation for pathogen reduction on fruits and vegetables and other RTE foods. Stephen Sundlof, director of FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, appeared before a House subcommittee hearing in March and said a determination was expected by October.

Such approval was seen as providing a big boost to acceptance of the technology, says Dennis Olson, Iowa State University meats scientist and irradiation expert. “I think companies would then start to take a serious look at whether they should adopt it,” he says.

“The request was for all leafy greens, and it would also have applied to hot dogs and lunch meats. It’s been languishing at FDA for nine years. And it’s unfortunate that it wasn’t expanded to a whole variety of foods, but it is a positive step for lettuce and spinach,” he says.

But the real question, Olson adds, is why FDA took nine years to act on the petition. A second question he poses is whether FDA requires more catastrophes in other foods in order to apply the approval to a wider selection of foods.

“FDA is not a leader in this area. There are at least five countries that have approval of all foods at all doses, while 18 allow irradiation of all foods at doses at a maximum of 10 kilograys,” Olson says.

The beef industry claims U.S. beef producers have invested more than $27 million in checkoff funds on beef-safety research since 1993. The Beef Industry Food Safety Council, which includes cattle producers, feeders, processors and scientists as well as retailers and foodservice operators, say the beef industry invests $350 million annually in beef-safety efforts.

The Holy Grail of beef safety is to conquer E.coli O157:H7 in ground beef, the industry’s most popular product. While inroads have been made, 2007 saw more than 20 federal meat recalls tally up to more than 30 million lbs. of beef products potentially contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. This year has easily eclipsed that figure, with the multi-million-pound Nebraska Beef, Ltd. recall that reached into the natural grocer Whole Foods, keeping the issue in the news.

The incremental steps in safer ground beef that millions and millions of research dollars – and likely millions more to come – have brought, however, won’t add up to the kill step that irradiation provides; researchers acknowledge that. Still, irradiation largely sits on the shelf, while research careers are made, the sensational headlines continue, and our most vulnerable consumers continue to be put at risk.

The meat industry and industry associations like to say they are behind irradiation. On Sept. 16-17, the top experts on E. coli O157:H7 from academia, government and industry will meet in Chicago to discuss what steps meat plants can take to improve their control programs for E. coli O157:H7. Irradiation – the most effective tool – is not even on the agenda.