The product, produced by Excel on various dates from Sept. 2 to Nov. 20 and sold in one-lb. chubs (93/7 and 85/15) into retail outlets in Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, was labeled and marketed as "irradiated for food safety" but hadn't undergone the irradiation process.

Mark Klein, Cargill's director of public relations, attributed the recall to a "simple clerical error."

Irradiation is marketed as an added food safety step, though it is actually the only real "kill" step for food-borne pathogens such as

E. coli

O157:H7 and Salmonella in ground beef. There is no indication that anyone was or is at risk or that anyone had become ill because of the mislabeled product.

But the term "irradiation" is regarded by purchasers of ground beef as a guarantee that the ground beef they pick up at the grocery story is free of food-borne pathogens. Though the irradiation industry and proponents of the process have continued to stress the importance of safe handling practices such as the thorough cooking of irradiated product, some consumers, confident of the process's proven record of killing food-borne bacteria, have been known to undercook it in preparation.

No one is claiming anything but a tragic oversight on Excel's part. In fact, Excel notified USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) last week that its internal investigation had found the mix-up. FSIS rated the recall as a Class II, which carries a low level of health risk to consumers.

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

For one, the beef industry has done much in the past few years to shore up its performance and reputation among consumers in the area of food safety. In fact, just this week USDA Secretary Ann Veneman reported that, in random sampling by FSIS, cases of salmonella in raw meat and poultry had declined by 66% over the past six years and by 16% since last year. Just a few weeks ago, USDA announced data showing similar precipitous declines in

E. coli

O157:H7 in ground beef, and listeria in ready-to-eat meat and poultry products.

In addition, the processing industry has made much about the success of its hazard analysis critical control point (HACCP) system as a tool in ensuring beef is as wholesome as possible. While this particular recall may have nothing to do with Excel's HAACP procedure, though ensuring that product packaged as irradiated certainly is irradiated should be a critical control point, the incident could fix in consumers' minds the question about just how much it can trust the beef industry to police itself.

Picture a consumer asking him or herself: "How good can a HAACP program be when it misses a critical control point like this -- for almost three months?"

The incident is likely to 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. With this news, consumers who paid more for product they thought had an added assurance of safety against food-borne pathogens -- only to find they'd been duped -- could well become discouraged from buying the product in the future. Of course, the biggest risk is of consumers not having thoroughly cooked the product because they thought the ground beef had the added assurance of irradiation.

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 last week in Canada 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, added together, all the pre-harvest interventions developed thus far, as well as 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 for these new vaccines and feed additive regimes, and the extra labor to apply them, which will likely be borne by the producer. Then, of course, there are potential related costs to the industry of injection site damage, more antibiotic use, etc.

Everyone loses with Excel's "simple clerical error" -- producers, processors, consumers, and the industry overall. But the biggest hit will be absorbed by the industry's greatest and most underused beef safety tool -- irradiation.