The good news is that the beef industry is mobilizing for an all-out, unified effort against E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef. The bad news is we shouldn't expect big gains any time soon.

The stated purpose of a January 8-9 summit in San Antonio that included representatives of every link in the ground beef chain from production to retail was to “ensure that safe, wholesome U.S. beef becomes even safer.” The result was the following five-point consensus for industry action.

  • Expanded research and fast-tracked approval of interventions such as cattle vaccines and feed additives.

  • Standardization of safety testing and verification at packing plants.

  • Uniform practice of sampling, testing and negative confirmation before meat processing.

  • Microbial control systems for foodservice suppliers.

  • Consumer information at point of purchase regarding cooking temperatures and thermometer use.

This is a great plan — as far as it goes. What's disappointing is that irradiation — the only technology currently available, effective, approved and endorsed by every reputable U.S. regulatory, medical and public health association and agency in the U.S. — didn't make the cut. In fact, one attendee reports that, in at least two of the summit's discussion groups, irradiation was taken off the table.

That makes us really question just how serious the beef industry is about guaranteeing food safety and protecting consumers of ground beef.

It's the same old story. While producer organizations like the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, and trade groups for packers, processors and food retailers “support” irradiation technology, none are willing to get out in front with dollars and staff time to move the effort forward.

Maybe it's because irradiation isn't as “sexy” or grant-worthy as newer, yet unproven, high-tech concepts and technologies that are still pending government approval. Perhaps it's an issue of perceived economics for packers and processors — though one would think that the cost of just one outbreak like that which hit ConAgra last summer would quickly eclipse the cost of promoting and implementing the technology.

During the question-and-answer session in San Antonio, a reporter asked why irradiation wasn't mentioned. The response was that, while the group recognizes irradiation as a useful tool in food safety, there are “organoleptic” issues to work out — things like the taste, color, etc., of such products when irradiation is conducted on a high-volume scale. The spokesman also said there was concern regarding the nation's capacity to irradiate all ground beef.

Those points were a complete surprise to irradiation proponents like Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council, who has championed irradiation of the ground beef supply for the past five years. He maintains that marketing of such products by at least 2,000 restaurants currently serving irradiated ground beef, and its availability in 4,000 retail grocery supermarkets in the U.S., hasn't turned up any organoleptic complaints.

In addition, Eustice adds, there currently exists a capacity to process 1 billion pounds of irradiated ground beef annually in the U.S., which is more than sufficient to meet current demand for this food safety option.

There's no getting around the fact that irradiation works. It's been studied for more than 70 years and it effectively kills 99.999% of E. coli 0157:H7 in food products.

Fact is, the widespread implementation of irradiation doesn't preclude the development or use of the other technologies and practices that the San Antonio group has enumerated. Irradiation isn't a silver bullet, but if used in concert with other existing technologies, it can immediately help to solve the battle with E. coli 0157:H7.

To win this war — and the industry will win it — we need to use all existing intervention strategies. Irradiation should be front and center in this effort.