Consumer acceptance of irradiation as a food safety measure appears to be surging in the aftermath of anthrax terror attacks in the U.S.

A telephone survey by Porter Novelli conducted Nov. 2-6 found that 52% of respondents favored government-mandated treatment of the food supply with irradiation to ensure safety. Interestingly, a survey last year by the same firm found that only 11% of consumers would buy such foods if they were available.

It's an amazing warm-up in the public attitude toward irradiation, a process sometimes called “cold pasteurization” or “electronic pasteurization.” The process involves exposing food to low levels of ionizing energy using regular electricity to kill 99.99% of food-borne E. coli 0157:H7 without affecting a product's taste or nutritional profile.

The change in irradiation's public acceptance isn't a surprise to Ron Eustice, executive director of the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC). For four years, Eustice, the MBC and its Minnesota partners have been leading the national call for widespread availability of irradiated ground beef in grocery stores.

Via Minnesota's efforts in building a coalition between producers, processors, public health officials and the media to educate consumers about the technology, irradiated ground beef became a commercial reality in Minneapolis in May 2000. For the first time irradiated ground beef was offered at retail in the U.S.

Since then, availability has spread to all 48 states, at retail mostly through Minnesota processor Huisken Meats of Chandler, MN, and Schwan's direct home delivery service. In addition, major packer Excel announced plans last summer to install SureBeam irradiation units in two plants.

Generally, Eustice says Minnesota has found the public receptive to irradiation once informed about the process. The Porter Novelli study aside, Eustice says studies have consistently shown consumer acceptance of irradiation in the 75-80% range once a little education on the process is provided.

The biggest hindrance, he says, was that the cause lacked a national standard bearer until MBC assumed the task. Processors, retailers and commodity groups shied away from promoting the technology for fear of consumer backlash. As a result, consumers barely heard the positive message about irradiation over the din of activist opposition.

The recent episodes of anthrax-laced mail, however, appear to have diluted the public's aversion to risk, which irradiation proponents had worked to exploit. And, the U.S. Postal Service's decision to sanitize all mail using the same SureBeam irradiation process used for food has depicted the process in a more accurate light to American consumers.

In the harried days following the first anthrax letters, a worried and curious public was force-fed a crash course on the benefits of electron-beam treatment of food and mail. And, though the dosage used in mail treatment is greater than that used to sterilize food, both utilize the same electron beam technology.

“This is a technology we as an industry should be pushing, not just for the health of our industry but because it's the right thing to do for our consumers,” Eustice says.

Minnesota's success prompted calls from other beef councils for help in their states. Currently, MBC is working with its counterpart organizations in Illinois, South Carolina, Georgia, Mississippi and Michigan in a partnership campaign with SureBeam called the SureBeam Irradiation Education Initiative.

“Basically, we try to help folks duplicate the Minnesota success in their states,” Eustice says. “We start by educating producers in order to create enthusiasm and interest. This is the number-one necessity. Someone has to lead the educational effort.”

It's an effort that has to be continuing one, he stresses. “You can't expect to just introduce it and leave the effort to grow on its own. A constant effort is needed to promote the product, educate the public and create demand. Partnerships with health professionals, retailers and restaurants are essential,” he adds.

Rancher Jeanne Harland of LaFayette, IL, concurs. Chairman of the Illinois Beef Association's product promotions committee, she's worked since August with Eustice and MBC staff to promote irradiation of ground beef in her state.

Just since September, she has served up Huisken's beef samples at three major Illinois shows — the Food Safety Symposium, the Independent Food Retailers Association and the Women's Lifestyle Show.

“Basically, these three shows have hit all our target groups, and the response has been tremendous,” she says. “What's surprising is how unaware some folks attending these meetings are about irradiation and food safety.

“Many ask me why, if this technology has been available for 20 years, is it not used more? Education is all that's needed at this point to move this technology forward,” she adds.

Hope may be on the horizon. On Jan. 8, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) will release the results of a number of studies regarding irradiation of beef products. Among them will be a checkoff-funded, in-home, consumer study of almost 500 families in Denver and Atlanta that was designed to determine consumer perceptions regarding irradiated ground beef.

James O. “Bo” Reagan, NCBA's executive director of research and technical services, says the study found that 65% of those surveyed had a favorable view of irradiated product. What's more, the study was performed last summer, so the results wouldn't reflect recent changes in consumer perception.

“The results strongly indicate that consumers want to see these products in grocery stores,” he says.

Reagan says the in-home study suggests that consumers also want to know more about the irradiation process. “From the results, it came through that we need to do a lot better job of educating people and providing them information,” he says.

Reagan adds that NCBA views irradiation as it does other food safety interventions. “It's no silver bullet, but we do feel there is a place for that product in the marketplace,” he says.

Following release of the study results in January, NCBA will develop more information for the consumer at retail and at the foodservice level, Reagan says. “We think the rollout of the study data will really kick things off. It will be the first step in really getting this initiative moving,” he says.

That movement, Reagan believes, has to be a multi-pronged effort that includes retail, foodservice and government. Whatever happens, Eustice and other Minnesotans are just glad reinforcements may be on the horizon.

“We need to quicken our step. Now that NCBA's research has confirmed much of what we learned on our own, we're delighted to see the organization moving ahead,” Eustice says. “It's high time that food irradiation takes its rightful place among the other pillars of public health — immunization, pasteurization and fluoridation.”