Beef producers, meat processors and food retailers need to get off the pine and into the game. It's time to join public health agencies in a concerted national effort to educate the public on the benefits of food irradiation.

One in four Americans will get a food-borne illness this year. Most will be mild and go unreported. A few, particularly among the young, the old and the sick, will cause much suffering, even death.

The vast majority of this food-borne illness will be due to contaminated fruits and vegetables. Some will be attributed to E. coli 0157:H7 in ground beef. Nearly all these could be avoided with irradiation.

Irradiation, or cold pasteurization, involves using high-energy electron beams derived from regular commercial electricity to treat ground beef — or any uncooked food product — after packaging. The process kills 99.99% of food-borne pathogens and can virtually guarantee that the products consumers pick up at the grocery store are pathogen-free.

Such treatment doesn't change the product's taste, doneness or nutrient profile. It's a process approved by 40 countries and endorsed by virtually every reputable scientific group and government agency interested in promoting public health through a safer food supply.

The main, and seemingly only, stumbling block to the acceptance of irradiation is its name. There's a tendency among consumers to equate the term with radioactivity, which has as much to do with irradiation as buffalo wings have to do with bison.

Numerous university and commercial studies indicate that with a little education on the benefits and safety of irradiation, most consumers support use of the technology. What's more, consumers are begging for more education.

Results of an in-home survey of 500 families conducted last spring and released on Jan. 8 by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) found that 65% had a favorable view of irradiation. Besides that, the respondents indicated they wanted more information and wanted to have such products more commercially available.

That they're commercially available at all is to the credit of a devoted handful of producers in Minnesota. There, Minnesota beef producers with the leadership of the Minnesota Beef Council (MBC) forged a partnership with state public health officials and a local ground beef processor — Huisken Meats of Chandler, MN.

Together, this group in May 2000 made possible the first commercially available irradiated ground beef product in the U.S. Since then, ground beef is now available in all 50 states, on a limited, but quickly growing, basis.

Ron Eustice, MBC executive director, has championed the irradiated ground beef cause to NCBA, but support has been tepid at best. Thus, Minnesotans and the MBC have been forced to largely battle on their own. The result is that Eustice and the MBC are now the resource that other state beef councils — as well as the national media — come to for information on beef irradiation.

Of its in-home survey results, NCBA characterizes one finding this way: “We need to do a lot better job of educating people and providing them information.”

That belated epiphany concerns Eustice and other Minnesotans who have patiently waited for such an acknowledgement. They've pinned similar results of such studies to their chests for years. They're hoping the confirmation from NCBA's own research will finally spur the group to action.

It's a slam-dunk issue, folks. Irradiation has the backing of a score of prestigious groups and agencies ranging from the United Nations to the American Medical Association.

The opposition consists of fringe groups that either philosophically oppose meat consumption or depend on fanning consumer fear to raise revenue. They charge that the adoption of irradiation means that the industry will relax its food safety efforts. But has that been the case in the dairy industry since the advent of pasteurization 70 years ago? Of course not.

The public wants the information and these products. What's more, it's the right thing to do. Let's get started on a “national” program to educate consumers on the benefits of irradiation.