Even though irradiation is a commercially viable tool for food safety, its adoption in the beef industry has been virtually non-existent. Experts say that’s largely because of the suspicion that arises when consumers think about radiation technology.
Traditionally, beef irradiation has used low-dose gamma rays to destroy microorganisms that can cause food-borne illness. Now, with electron beam irradiation, radiation waves can be removed from the equation. But the moniker, and the negativity it conjures, remains.
According to Gary Acuff, director of the Center for Food Safety at Texas A&M University (TAMU), e-beam irradiation is a much better way to apply the technology to beef carcasses and end products. In fact, it’s well suited for use on end products, because it works best when applied to consistent surfaces.
TAMU researchers have developed a prototype irradiation chamber, which produces an “irradiation cloud” that applies an even treatment on the carcass surface. More research is needed to determine if the technology is commercially viable, but Acuff says research dollars are hard to come by.
But he thinks the technology would alleviate much of the consumer concern with radiation. “It’s not going to be a silver bullet,” he cautions. E-beam Irradiation works well on many pathogens that are a food-safety concern, like Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7. But it doesn’t control everything, specifically spore-forming pathogens.
Then there’s the debate over flavor effects. “If you talk with irradiation proponents, they’ll tell you it does nothing to the flavor. If you talk to irradiation opponents, they’ll tell you it tastes awful. The truth is always going to be somewhere in the middle,” Acuff says. But he thinks treating the carcass, rather than individual end products, will lessen that effect.
Perhaps one of the impediments that dissuade packers and processors from adoption is the requirement that all irradiated beef products carry the radiation symbol, or radura, on the label.
“We use a lot of processing aids today, such as organic acid sprays, which aren’t labeled because they don’t have a lasting and material effect on the product,” says James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation. “The same thing applies to irradiation. But current law requires the technology be treated as an additive, when it is, in fact, a processing aid just like a lot of other things we use.”
AMI petitioned USDA more than five years ago to change that labeling requirement, but the agency hasn’t acted. In the meantime, the industry is searching for other alternatives that will allow adoption of the technology, Hodges says.
Irradiation is a technology that has strong food safety advantages and is safe for consumers, both experts say. “What we’re interested in is putting tools in the toolbox,” Hodges says. “Then it becomes the marketplace that decides whether or not they’re going to be used.”
Unfortunately, history doesn’t bode well for a technology that has the potential to be a game-changer for cattlemen.