In a setback for the beef industry in general, and the movement to promote the widespread use of irradiation on ground beef in particular, Excel announced in November, its recall of 26,600 lbs. of mislabeled ground beef. The product, produced by Excel on various dates from Sept. 2 to Nov. 20 and sold in 1-lb. packages into retail outlets in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was labeled and marketed as “irradiated for food safety” but hadn't undergone irradiation.

There's no indication anyone was, or is, at risk because of the mislabeled product. But the term “irradiation” is regarded by purchasers of ground beef as a guarantee that the product they pick up at the grocery story is free of food-borne pathogens. Though the irradiation industry and process proponents continue to stress the importance of safe handling practices, including thorough cooking, some consumers, confident of the process's proven record of killing food-borne bacteria, have been known to undercook the product.

Mark Klein, Cargill director of public relations, attributed the recall to a “simple clerical error.” It was Excel that notified USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) about the oversight, and FSIS rated the recall as a Class II, which carries a low level of consumer health risk.

But the news delivers a blow to the industry that can be felt in several ways.

  • The beef industry has done much in the past few years to bolster its food safety image among consumers. In fact, the same week as the Excel recall, USDA Secretary Ann Veneman reported that, in random FSIS samplings, cases of salmonella in raw meat and poultry had dropped 66% over the past six years and 16% since last year. Just a few weeks before, USDA had announced similarly impressive declines in E. coli O157:H7 in ground beef, and listeria in ready-to-eat meat and poultry products.

  • The processing industry has made much about its hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) system as a tool in ensuring beef is as wholesome as possible. The Excel oversight could fix in consumers' minds the question about just how much the food industry can be trusted to police itself.

  • The incident also could set back the irradiation movement for ground beef, which had been gaining steam, even with little to no help from the trade associations for beef producers, processors and retailers. Consumers who paid more for product they thought had an added assurance of safety against food-borne pathogens — only to find out it didn't — might be dissuaded from buying the product in the future.

The beef industry is currently working at a frantic pace on a lot of pre-harvest interventions to try to eliminate the incidence of food-borne pathogens in ground beef. In fact, a press conference held in Canada the week before the Excel recall trumpeted the effectiveness of a new E. coli O157:H7 vaccine for cattle that could be on the market in early 2004.

But the truth is that all the pre-harvest interventions developed thus far and those still on the drawing board don't add up to what the single step of irradiation can do in controlling food-borne pathogens. Plus, there's the added cost and labor, likely to be borne by producers, for these new regimes. Then, of course, there are the potential related risks to the industry of injection site lesions, more antibiotic use, etc.

Everyone loses with Excel's “simple clerical error,” but the biggest hit will be borne by the industry's greatest and most underused beef safety tool — irradiation.

It's my pleasure this month to introduce Stephanie Veldman as a BEEF magazine associate editor. Stephanie is a southern Minnesota native and an Iowa State University graduate with degrees in ag education and journalism. She joins BEEF after a two-year-stint as assistant editor with the Angus Journal and Angus Beef Bulletin in St. Joe, MO. Welcome, Stephanie.