May 16 marked the third anniversary of the commercial availability of irradiated ground beef in the U.S. On that day in 2000, frozen ground beef patties treated with electron beam technology to kill food-borne pathogens were offered for the first time at retail in 84 grocery stores in the Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN, metro area.

Today, both fresh and frozen irradiated ground beef is available in more than 7,000 retail outlets and 2,000 restaurants across the U.S. In fact, around 15 million lbs. of irradiated ground beef were sold in the U.S. in 2002. Still, that's just a fraction of all the ground beef moved in the U.S. last year.

The U.S. Centers For Disease Control (CDC) reports that 5,000 Americans will die of food-borne illness this year, while 76 million will be sickened and 325,000 hospitalized. The vast majority will be due to contaminated raw fruits and vegetables, but pathogens in ground beef — particularly E. coli 0157:H7 — will also be a factor.

Elsa Murano, USDA's undersecretary for food safety, told attendees of the World Food Irradiation Congress in Chicago in early May that irradiation is the only technology, other than thorough cooking, that can handle the problem of pathogens in ground beef. She was careful to point out that irradiation isn't a substitute for good sanitation in American meat plants, nor does it replace proper cooking and safe food handling practices.

Irradiation, she said, is just “one more tool available — in addition to other methods such as antimicrobial sprays and rinses — to reduce contamination on meat and poultry products.”

With that statement, Murano went one giant step farther than attendees of the E. Coli Summit who gathered in San Antonio, TX, in January. At that meeting, more than 200 representatives of every segment in the ground beef chain from producers to retailing laid out a strategy to eliminate food-borne pathogens in ground beef.

Their five-point plan included:

  • 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 sampling, testing and negative confirmation before meat processing.

  • Microbial control systems for foodservice suppliers.

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

But Murano said in Chicago that the group's task is unlikely to be accomplished without the use of irradiation.

“You have to have a step that actually kills all the bacteria and irradiation is the most effective at doing that. Even though we've seen other methods like acid rinses of carcasses and so forth, those haven't been 100% effective. To achieve the same effect (as with irradiation), you'd have to have similar technology or several steps that give you an additive effect and there's nothing that is as effective as that today,” she said.

It's interesting that the CDC's Division of Bacterial and Mycotic Diseases listed in a December 2000 news release a series of challenges the agency felt it faced in beating E. coli 0157:H7. Among them were: “Developing farm and slaughterhouse-based methods to decrease contamination of meat, and encouraging use of irradiation to increase the safety of ground beef.”

Three years later, the challenge still apparently exists. The San Antonio E. Coli Summit addressed the first point, but participants chose to ignore the second. When all the segments responsible for ensuring the safety of ground beef leave the only proven, most effective and available tool off the table, what message does it send regarding the industry's commitment toward protecting the consumers of its ground beef products?

High-protein diet pioneer Robert Atkins died April 17 as a result of injuries suffered in an April 8 fall. Any individual interested in health and a life free of nutrition-related disease owes a debt to Atkins. Increasingly, his Atkins Nutritional Approach is becoming a mainstream tool of the medical community to control the growing world epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other medical conditions. For more on Atkins, go to www.atkinscenter.com.