A story in the August issue of Consumer Reports (see “The truth about irradiated meat” at www.consumerreports.org, click on the “Consumer advice” tab on the opening page) pooh-poohs the importance of the irradiation of meat as a food safety tool. The article claims consumers would be better served to properly cook their meat than purchase irradiated beef, chicken or pork.

In the article, the authors write:

“Irradiated meat generally harbors far fewer bacteria than nonirradiated meat, so there is less chance it would make you sick if it were not cooked thoroughly. And experts say there would be fewer germs in drippings that could contaminate other foods from, say, a cutting board.

“But irradiated meat doesn't protect against other food-handling problems. It offers no added safeguards if it is stored improperly, handled with dirty hands or tainted from the drippings of some other contaminated food.”

Later, in a piece in Web MD on the msn.com Web site, Consumer Reports managing editor Kim Kleman is quoted as saying: “Irradiation will not take care of all your contamination problems. It isn't a silver bullet for food-borne illness.”

Consumer Reports seems to have missed the point of irradiating food products. As far as I know, no commercial or industry outfit has termed irradiation as “a silver bullet” to food-borne pathogens. It's generally described as another proven and effective food safety intervention to be used in conjunction with other steps to minimize food-borne illness, particularly E.coli 0157:H7 in ground beef.

Even with irradiated ground beef, consumers are still cautioned to cook the food thoroughly and to protect against cross-contamination with other foods. The article in Consumer Reports mentions this latter fact but depicts it as a weakness of the technology.

To tell consumers to simply rely on thorough cooking to maximize food safety is irresponsible. Consumers, in general, just aren't that knowledgeable or careful about proper food preparation.

  • Christine Bruhn is director of the Center for Consumer Research at the University of California-Davis (http://ccr.ucdavis.edu/), which focuses on consumer attitudes toward food safety and quality.

    She says observations over three years of roughly 100 consumers involved in food preparation found a significant amount of poor food preparation among research subjects. These included no hand washing prior to preparation, improper cooling of meat and cross contamination of foods during the preparation process.

  • Research conducted at Kansas State University (KSU), and later verified by USDA, found that internal cooked meat color was a poor indicator of doneness in ground beef. Melvin Hunt, a KSU meat scientist, tells BEEF that ground beef patties cooked to as low as 130°F sometimes appeared to be fully cooked. A 160°F temp is recommended.

    What's more, the research found that depending on whether the hamburger patty is fresh or frozen, and its location in the package of ground beef from which it's taken, the incidence of “premature browning” can range from 10% to as high as 60-70%.

    “Irradiation is a great alternative,” Hunt says. “My question is how long will the beef industry put up with this constant recurrence of having E. coli rear its ugly head relative to ground beef? More than half of beef is sold in ground form and we just keep rolling the dice over and over again.”

  • Another issue, say Bruhn and Hunt, is that many consumers don't understand proper use of a food thermometer.

“Consumers often don't buy the right thermometers — there's a pretty large variation in sensitivity. And, they often don't understand how to use it properly,” Hunt says. “There can be 5-10 degrees difference from one patty to another, and it varies by whether the product is fresh or frozen and where you put the probe.”

Given all this, it would seem that irradiation to help ensure that the product the consumer picks up at the grocery store is safe to eat would be a prime concern, and a priority. Irradiation is the only available, proven and effective technology that can kill food-borne pathogens to a 99.9% or higher degree. These are well-known benefits that were apparently lost to the authors of the Consumer Reports article.

And that's too bad for everyone, but particularly those most at risk of food-borne illness — young children, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.